The death of a baby girl, found floating in a canvas bag in the Mississippi River near Winona last fall, has prompted changes to Minnesota's "Safe Haven" law that take effect Wednesday.

State officials hope the expanded law will give distraught parents safe alternatives in their time of crisis and protect unwanted newborns from harm.

The law, first enacted in 2000, was expanded this year to give unprepared mothers the option of legally abandoning their babies by calling 911 for an ambulance, or by delivering the infants to hospitals or urgent care clinics. Under Minnesota's original law, the only option was to take the newborns to hospitals.

"It might not always be possible for a young woman to get the baby to a hospital," said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "So now she could call someone or look at other [medical] options that might be safe alternatives."

The new law also gives mothers seven days to legally and anonymously abandon their babies (or to have someone surrender babies to authorities on their behalf). The previous law, which set the limit at three days, was among the strictest in the nation.

Minnesota's Legislature approved the expansion earlier this year with bipartisan support, although some legislators had proposed an even broader 30-day time frame. Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson sought the change in reaction to the Winona case and three similar deaths in southeastern Minnesota.

Three of the infant deaths occurred after the passage of Minnesota's first Safe Haven law, suggesting that the statute wasn't working as officials had hoped.

The Winona case remains under investigation, and the cause of the baby's death remains undetermined. The girl's body had been wrapped in plastic bags and placed inside a tote bag that was found by a family boating on the river. Four porcelain angels and a bracelet were in the tote bag as well, but those clues haven't yet helped authorities find the girl's parents or any suspects.

Authorities have acted on tips and obtained DNA samples from suspected parents, said Drew Evans, a senior special agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He supported the expanded Safe Haven law. "Any expanded way to get that baby into a safe place is a good thing,'' he said. "We have to sometimes put ourselves in [the parents'] frame of mind.''

State variations

State authorities don't know the number of children safely abandoned under Minnesota law, Sullivan Sutton said. News reports tell of one 2008 case in which a baby boy was left at a Fergus Falls hospital. Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota reported receiving one or two abandoned babies over the past decade.

Iowa's law requires parents to act within 14 days of birth. Wisconsin's limit is three days, but the state allows parents to bring children to fire departments or police stations in addition to hospitals. North Dakota allows parents to surrender children within their first year of birth to hospitals.

Nebraska's law drew widespread attention in 2008 because it allowed parents to surrender children of all ages. Within two months of the law's enactment, six parents had deposited 14 children, including seven teens, at area hospitals. The law was changed later that year to apply only to infants within 30 days of their birth.

Sullivan Sutton noted that Minnesota's law requires mothers to actually surrender their babies to medical authorities, not just leave the children at the door. Mothers who give birth in hospitals can give the children up for adoption under more traditional circumstances.

Minnesota's law still gives women opportunities to change their minds and to reclaim the children they abandoned, although they would be subject to child welfare investigations and have to prove they would present no threat of harm to the children.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744