Proposal could get surrendered infants to “forever families” sooner

But lawmakers struggled to balance infant needs with parental rights – and scuffled over anti-vaccine edits

By: - April 3, 2023 6:30 am

An infant clutches a mother’s finger. (Getty Images).

A proposal just one step away from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk could get infants surrendered under the state’s safe haven laws to adoptive families more quickly. 

But some lawmakers fear its provisions could violate the rights of regretful or unaware biological parents. New anti-vaccine provisions also snarled debate.

“This is probably the best thing that we have ever done,” said bill author Travis Holdman, R-Markle, of Indiana’s 20-year-old safe haven law.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

He told lawmakers earlier this month that it saves infants and can help desperate biological parents.

The law allows people to give up unwanted infants anonymously – as long as there are no signs of abuse – and lays out procedures for safe surrenders and legal custodies.

Shift emphasizes outside agencies, adoptions

Holdman’s Senate Bill 345 defines a safe haven infant as one 30 days old or younger and who’s been voluntarily left by a parent with an emergency medical services provider or in a newborn safety device often called a baby box.

The Department of Child Services has taken surrendered infants into custody for the last two decades. The legislation would let licensed child placing agencies do the same.

“DCS, it sort of gets bogged down in the bureaucracy,” Holdman told the Capital Chronicle. “I believe it’s just another opportunity for a licensed child placing agency to stand in the place of DCS, and just to provide more options for those families that are interested in adopting infants.”

Holdman’s proposal attempts to skip foster placements in favor of adoption. It tasks the outside agencies with placing infants into pre-approved adoptive homes “without unnecessary delay.”

Rep. Joanna King, R-Middlebury. (Monroe Bush for Indiana Capital Chronicle)

DCS had one infant in its custody for a whopping 22 months, the bill’s House sponsor — Joanna King, R-Middlebury — said on the floor this month.

She said getting placing agencies involved could get children “placed with their forever famil[ies] much sooner.”

The goal is to “minimize the number of moves that a child’s going to have. We want to provide security as soon as possible,” Adoptions of Indiana leader Meg Sterchi told lawmakers at a hearing.

That placement doesn’t mean biological parents can’t return and assert their rights, she said.

But the legislation does make it easier and faster to eliminate those rights.

Fights over parental rights

Senate Bill 345 requires DCS and the outside agencies to file petitions — within 15 days of taking custody — to terminate the legal relationship between surrendered infants and their biological parents. 

The proposal lays out what that petition should include and how to give public notice on it, so that parents who regret the surrender or didn’t know of the infant can take the child back. 

But if they don’t respond to the public notices or ask for custody within 28 days, the legislation says they’re “irrevocably” implying consent to the ending of their parental rights.

Multiple lawmakers of both parties — most of them lawyers by trade — said the time period was too short, and that biological parents should get more opportunity to go to court.

Sen. Susan Glick, R-LaGrange, noted in a hearing last month that it’s an “irreversible decision to terminate parental rights.” Later, she expressed concern for fathers who don’t know of their children.

“We’re talking [less than] 30 days for them to discover that they have a child and come forward without any more information than ‘Baby Boy X has been surrendered,'” Glick said.

Adoptions of Indiana’s Sterchi countered that fathers have the entire nine months of the pregnancy in addition to the proposed time period.

“Having sex with a woman is notice enough that there could be a pregnancy,” Sterchi said. “… There has to be some responsibility on the part of the father to engage.” 


Anti-vaccine provision rankles some

Lawmakers also edited in language blocking the placing agencies from “discriminat[ing] against” prospective foster and adoptive parents who don’t have unspecified vaccines. 

“The issue is we want to make sure that a family is not discriminated against based on their vaccination status,” King said on the floor this month.

The amendment came directly from House leadership, she said during a committee hearing. It was easily adopted with oral consent — not a roll-call vote.

That’s already DCS policy, spokeswoman Noelle Russell told the Capital Chronicle in an email. The department declined to comment on the rest of the bill.

But the changes apply to all placing agencies, and for all foster and adoption decisions — not just those pertaining to infants surrendered under the safe haven law.

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There are exceptions for “medically fragile” children and for “biological parental preference.” 

But there’s little detail on how sick is sick enough, or how parents might communicate that preference, if their identities are even known. King did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

“I rise on this issue because of this bill and a series of other bills before this body that are designed to reduce the use of immunization in this state. That’s what’s going on here,” said Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis.

He cautioned that some highly effective vaccines can prevent diseases with serious consequences, like the irreversible paralysis of polio, the birth defects of rubella and the sterility of mumps.

“I think we have to take a stand that we favor vaccinations — that we don’t want to play around with it, that we think it’s important,” DeLaney said. “It saves lives and health and money.”

Past and future

Carmel Fire Department Community Relations Chief John Moriarty told lawmakers that the department’s three surrenders had been “life-changing” experiences.

“I was on duty for the first one and when I got over to the station, six firefighters were carrying the bassinet out to the ambulance,” Moriarty said at a hearing this month. “I told my wife I wish I’d taken a picture because they looked like six angels carrying it.”

“Nothing was going to happen to that baby. I promise you that,” he added.

The proposal also says that placing agencies can’t charge adoptive parents more than their direct costs. Adoption fees can total many thousands of dollars.

The legislation also says that surrendered infants are presumed to be eligible for Medicaid until they’re adopted.

DCS, meanwhile, said it’ll keep fulfilling its duties.

“DCS is equipped to provide for any children who come into our care, regardless of circumstance,” Russell said. “We will continue to follow Indiana law regarding Safe Haven surrenders.”

Both the Senate and House have approved Senate Bill 345, but it’s not at Gov. Eric Holcomb’s desk quite yet.

Senators must approve changes from their House counterparts, but could do so as soon as Monday afternoon.


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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.