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Baby abandonment bill held up in the state Senate

COLUMBUS - A bill that would make Ohio the 15th state to allow parents to legally abandon newborns unanimously passed a Senate committee yesterday, only to run into a wall on its way to the full Senate.

The bill's immediate future appears to be linked to a separate, more controversial measure encouraging nonprofit organizations to conduct criminal background checks of coaches, tutors, and other volunteers involved with children.

The child abandonment bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cheryl Winkler (R., Cincinnati), would allow a parent of a baby five days old or younger to hand the child over to a police officer or medical professional and walk away without fear of prosecution.

The measure is aimed primarily at teen mothers who hide a pregnancy and then seek to dispose of the evidence of that pregnancy after the birth.

“In some situations, we learn that a baby has been left in a vacant lot or some other undesirable place because the mother is afraid of identification, shame, and prosecution,” Andrew Fox, spokesman for Cuyahoga County Children's Services, told the Senate Health, Human Services, and Aging Committee.

“House Bill 660 will help instruct young mothers who are overwhelmed and feeling helpless that there are better alternatives to abandoning your child,” he said.

The bill passed the House 91-4 last month and made it through the committee yesterday with only a minor change in language. The bill appeared to be on the fast track for a full Senate vote yesterday, but the Senate Rules Committee shelved it until at least today at the request of state Sen. Bruce Johnson (R., Columbus). He had earlier voted in favor of the bill as a member of Health, Human Services, and Aging.

Mr. Johnson is sponsor of another bill that, when passed by the Senate earlier this year, would have allowed parents to demand that sports leagues, scouts organizations, and other nonprofit groups conduct criminal background checks of volunteers with unsupervised access to their children.

A House committee chaired by Ms. Winkler watered down the controversial bill so that it simply encourages such groups to voluntarily conduct such checks in exchange for legal immunity if a volunteer not flagged by such a check later hurts a child. The organization's policy could include random checks as opposed to checks of all volunteers.

The bill passed the House in that form.

But Mr. Johnson later convinced his fellow senators not to concur with the changes and has since worked in conference committee to restore some teeth to the bill. The committee, chaired by Mr. Johnson and including Ms. Winkler as a member, met to discuss an amendment that would deny certification and full immunity to any organization whose policy falls short of a background check of every volunteer with unsupervised access to children.

A conference committee vote is set for tomorrow. The two Democrats on the six-member committee have questioned the measure, so Mr. Johnson may need Ms. Winkler's vote for passage.

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