Haven Can Wait | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Haven Can Wait

On January 28, four people dropped off a 3-week-old baby boy at Broward Sheriff's Office Fire Station 17 in West Park. Baby Kaleem's story was soon front-page news: His mother, Alecia Reid, had asked her roommate, Stacy Counes, to watch the child, but Counes left Kaleem with strangers on a bus. A day later, after they couldn't reach Counes, the strangers brought the baby to the fire station, which in turn led to a police investigation and the arrest of Counes. Kaleem is safe in county hands, and Reid has been prevented from taking him home.

The strangers who dropped off Kaleem won't be prosecuted. But that they were even part of the police investigation raises questions about the effectiveness of Florida's Safe Haven for Newborns Law.

Since the law's 2000 passage, 41 newborns have been anonymously dropped off at fire stations, hospitals, and police stations around the state. And what has convinced troubled young parents to hand off their infants — rather than, possibly, discarding them — is the law's promise of "no questions asked."

Kaleem's story is still ongoing — he's safe, and Counes is facing charges of interference with custody and infliction of pain or suffering on a child. But why, New Times wondered, wasn't the Safe Haven for Newborns Law followed in this case? In other words, how good is the state's promise that no questions will be asked?

The unidentified guardians who dropped Kaleem off at the station were apparently well aware of the law and expected to enjoy its protection.

"They had heard that you can always bring a baby to the firehouse," says Jim Leljedal, spokesman for the Broward's Sheriff's Office. "Which is sort of good — that's the word we want to get out there."

But Leljedal says that fire station employees immediately phoned the police, who launched an investigation into the identity of the child and its parents — exactly the thing that the Safe Haven law purports to avoid. The website of the Gloria M. Silverio Foundation, which administers the Safe Haven program, stresses that parents will remain anonymous: "It is important to be assured that no one is going to try to find out who you are." If the conditions of the law are followed, the website says, "the Police and the Department of Children and Families will not be called."

And when Kaleem was initially dropped off, the Safe Haven law did seem to apply. The first Sun-Sentinel story about the incident included an interview with a worker at the fire station affiliated with the Safe Haven program, as well as with the Silverio Foundation's creator, Nick Silverio, who told the newspaper that the program planned to name the child Gabriel.

But today, Silverio insists that Kaleem was never considered a Safe Haven baby. "At that time... well, we didn't know. Initially, a baby was left at the fire station. Punto. That was the information that all of us had," he says. "The only thing that linked this to Safe Haven was the fact that the people knew that they could bring the baby to the fire station. In our normal situation, when babies are left at fire stations, the police are never involved."

If the police had not been called, publicity about baby "Gabriel's" arrival would no doubt have attracted the attention of Kaleem's mother, Reid, who eventually did report him missing. In that scenario, police would eventually have learned about Counes' involvement through Reid — and the Safe Haven law could have worked as advertised.

But that didn't happen. Police were notified right away. Silverio says that only later, as more information about baby "Gabriel" emerged, did it became clear that he wasn't covered under the Safe Haven law. But Leljedal disputes this, saying it was immediately obvious the child wouldn't be considered a Safe Haven newborn.

The child was obviously older than three days, he points out, which is the requisite cutoff for the program. "As soon as I got to the firehouse," Leljedal says, "they said, 'Well, first of all, it's not a newborn. '" Secondly, the group that dropped off the child admitted that it was not their own, which raised further suspicions. "They were forthcoming," Leljedal says.

Despite the immediate involvement of police, for several hours, Silverio and his staff believed — and told the media — that the baby was the first Safe Haven rescue of 2006. Only when Reid came to police the following day to report Kaleem missing did Silverio and the Safe Haven program completely disassociate itself from the child.

Thanks in part to publicity about the Safe Haven program, which apparently convinced the strangers to turn in the child, Kaleem wasn't harmed. But the case makes it clear that the law's promise of anonymity may be somewhat illusory. Authorities, it turns out, make quick judgments about the people who drop off a child, suggesting that the promise of anonymity is conditional.

"The spirit of the law is just to offer an alternative for desperate mothers who don't know what to do with them," Leljedal says. Those who don't fit that description may arouse suspicions. For example, though the law explicitly stipulates that "parents," not mothers, are protected, Leljedal pauses when asked if a man dropping off a baby would warrant a call to the police. "That would be unusual, I'm sure," he says. "It hasn't happened yet."

Silverio bristles at the suggestion that anonymity isn't guaranteed. "No, it's not conditional. This is not a judgment call — this is basically information being provided." But when pressed, he acknowledged that authorities do make assumptions about the people who bring in an infant: "This is people saying, 'This is possibly a situation where the police need to be involved. '"

Silverio admits that the publicity surrounding Safe Haven for Newborn's involvement with Baby Kaleem may not be beneficial for the program because it might scare some desperate parents off, but he places the blame squarely on the media.

"Our helpline got some calls from citizens, basically saying that some of the news media is not really reporting correctly," he says. "It only shoots [the Safe Haven for Newborns program] in the foot if you report it in that way."