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Safe Surrender law passed in 2001 after baby’s body in Macon landfill could soon be changed

The risk of homicide on the first day of life is 10 times greater than the rate during any other time of life. Every year, several babies are either killed or left to die in North Carolina by a parent in crisis, who may feel they have no other choice

Lawmakers in North Carolina continue to make moves to significantly expand the state’s safe surrender law for newborns. Senate Bill 20, which is co-sponsored by North Carolina Senate 50 Representative Kevin Corbin is named “Safe Surrender Infants” would amend House Bill 275, titled “Infant Homicide Prevention Act,” which was signed into law by former Gov. Mike Easley in July 2001. Most of SB20’s legislation would become law on Oct. 1.

On average, two infants are killed or left unprotected to die each year, according to NCDHHS. Every two weeks, a North Carolina child is killed by a parent or caregiver in some form of child abuse. 

The same week SB20 was filed in the North Carolina Senate, a Union County jury sentenced a 30-year-old woman to life without parole after she was found guilty of first-degree murder and felony intentional child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury. According to court records, Khrystina Marie Rice gave birth to a boy in the main bathroom of her home in October 2019. She then killed the baby before attempting to conceal the body in a heavy fleece blanket and trash bag. 

The existing law decriminalizes the parental abandonment of an infant not more than 7 days old who is not a victim of neglect or abuse under the provisions that the infant can be placed into the temporary custody of a responsible adult, the preference as outlined in the law is an on-duty health-care provider, law enforcement officer, social services worker, and certified emergency medical services worker.

The main change to the existing law in the proposed SB20, which passed the Senate by a 44-0 vote last week,  is that it removes the option of surrendering to any individual out of concerns that the individual could be connected with human trafficking.

In the 21 years since the law was established in North Carolina, North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services reports that 16 infants have been surrendered under the law, five of which were surrendered in 2020. 

The 2001 law has origins in Macon County, which is one of many reasons Senator Corbins signed on with the bill’s primary sponsor Senator Jim Burgin to sponsor the legislation. 

“I still vividly remember the day the news broke around town that a newborn was found dead in the Macon County landfill,” said Senator Kevin Corbin. “That is something that you just never forget. We don’t know what would have happened to the 16 babies who were safely surrendered since that law was passed, but what we do know is that they are alive today because of it. The “Safe Surrender Infants” law takes another step to ensure that mothers have a choice to do what is best for their child.” 

Former Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland, who retired after 20 years as Sheriff at the end of last year, was a Detective when he was assigned to investigate the infant’s death in February 2000. The tragic incident led Holland to advocate for changes on the state law to prevent a mother from being prosecuted for giving up their child. Because of Holland’s efforts, the Infant Homicide Prevention Act was passed in 2001. 

Holland said he supports the proposed changes to the state’s law and future measures to prevent tragedies like the one he investigated in 2000. 

“This was a piece of legislation that we should never stop considering how we can improve it. A piece of legislation that in the beginning people said would never work, however to date more than a dozen babies have been saved because of it,” said Holland. “One important missing piece to the original legislation has always been the lack of funding to advertise the important aspects of what the legislation was attempting to prevent. Expanding the legislation now brings the issue back to light and raises awareness about the law’s intent. During normal circumstances, one could never abandon their newborn but desperate people do desperate things. We MUST make this desperate measure known. No greater love can a mother give her child than the opportunity of life, even if it’s not with her. There are people wanting to be parents who would love the opportunity to nurture and love a desperate mother’s baby who for some reason they didn’t think they could fulfill.”

As part of the original law championed by Holland, school districts in North Carolina are sartorially required to provide information to high school students annually on how to lawfully abandon a newborn baby. The provision also applies to charter, home, and non-public schools. The education provision is retained in the proposed SB20. 

Other additions in SB20 include:

Responding to a non-surrendering parent to assure that the infant was surrendered safely.

Allows a non-surrendering parent to gain custody as long as the infant has not been subject to neglect or abuse by the non-surrendering parent.

If a parent, whether surrendering or non-surrendering, seeks custody, the county social services department is required to ask for a DNA test “if there is uncertainty to parentage.”

Within 60 days of surrendering the infant, the surrendering parent “has the right” to contact the county social services department and request custody.

However, the bill would require the county social services director “to treat any such request as a report of neglect and comply” with the appropriate state law.

After 60 days, if the surrendering parent does not seek to reclaim custody, the county social services department is required to initiate a termination of parental rights.

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