Thursday, June 15, 2000

'What's a baby's life worth?'




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        This time, the baby was not thrown in the trash. Instead, 11-week-old Maria Zilua-Gomez was tortured.

        The infant died Monday at Children's Hospital Medical Center, one of the worst physical abuse cases experts there have seen in years. The mother is 16 years old, so young the Enquirer won't use her name. The father is 21.

        The couple stands accused of assault and child endangering. They live in a poor section of Hamilton. Maybe the problem was poverty. Or desperation.

        The underlying cause can wait.

        Right now, let's work on the symptom instead — the symptom being a baby who was pummeled to death.

Getting worse
        In May, Ohio Rep. Cheryl Winkler introduced a bill to allow new mothers to drop off their babies at a safe haven without fear of prosecution. She chairs the House Children and Family Services Committee, which will work on this bill all summer, trying to iron out the kinks.

        The “safe abandonment” legislation began in Mobile, Ala., after a young, unwed mother drowned her newborn boy in a toilet. Now, at least 28 states, including Ohio and Kentucky, are considering similar laws.

        “Besides the abandoned babies,” Rep. Winkler says, “there are the infants who are abused.” Some laws, she says, allow mothers to drop off newborns only within 72 hours of birth. Not enough time. “I am pushing for 30 days.”

        The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 105 abandoned babies, including 33 dead, in 1998. Hundreds more were abused. For instance, Children's Hospital averages 12 shaken babies a year.

        “It's getting much worse,” says Pat Myers, the hospital's director of social services. “Already this year, we have 13.”

Ugly detail
        I asked her about Maria.

        A pause.

        “No way I would want to jeopardize the case against whoever did this,” she says. “But I will tell you this ranks among the most horrendous cases we've ever had.”

        She also said it was “horrific” and “terrible.” But she could not discuss the bones broken, organs crushed, flesh torn. I wanted to be able to tell you how ugly this is. I would show you a picture, if I could. But even if I could pry a picture from Children's Hospital, this newspaper would not run it. It is too awful.

        The drop-off law is complicated, no doubt about it. Questions of paternity. Questions of the baby's health history. “It's a tricky issue,” Rep. Winkler says. “But we've got to do something. What's a baby's life worth?”

        A lot of meetings. A lot of pushing. A lot of work this summer.

        Nobody will be asking legislators to relax over golf to talk about this one. Babies have a terrible lack of sophistication and lobbying skills. So it's up to lawmakers to do this without advice from lobbyists. Or money from PACs.

        Rep. Winkler says she is determined to get this done by December, when she will leave office because of term limits. “We have critics,” she says, “who say this might encourage irresponsibility. Somebody actually said the state would be teaching abandonment.” She gives a ladylike snort.

        Shelters for unwanted babies don't solve the problems that put them there. They don't make parents take responsibility. They don't cure poverty. Or despair. Or drugs. Madness or sheer meanness.

        But until we figure out how to heal the disease, why not move heaven and earth to treat the symptom?

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

Hamilton baby death case goes to grand jury



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