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The Plight of `Boarder Babies'

THE cartoon stereotype of abandoned babies centers around foundlings left in baskets on church doorsteps, then quickly adopted by loving couples. The sad new reality for the '90s involves newborns abandoned in hospital nurseries, where they languish for weeks and even months because no one wants them. "Boarder babies," they are called, and their numbers continue to grow.

A survey by the Child Welfare League of America and the National Association of Public Hospitals found that at 72 hospitals in 12 urban areas, 600 infants a month had no place to go. Their parents either could not or would not care for them. Eighty-five percent had been exposed to alcohol or drugs before birth. Two percent tested positive for the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Only about one-fifth were expected to be reunited with their parents. The rest - nearly 80 percent - would either be adopted or plac ed with relatives or foster parents. The cost for their care ranges from $600 to $800 a day per child and is not covered by insurance or Medicaid.

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Beyond the staggering economic costs, there are incalculable social costs. Babies need more love and attention than busy nurses can give them. Parents need jobs, housing, and drug or alcohol treatment programs. But as these needs have increased, budgets for support services have decreased.

Solutions exist, although no one is pretending they are easy or inexpensive. The Child Welfare League's report recommends increased funding for a federal grant program called the Abandoned Infants Assistance Act, which helps parents keep their children and trains foster parents. The program's $12.6 million budget has been frozen since 1989.

The report also calls for passage of legislation now before Congress that would allocate $3.5 billion for child-welfare services over five years. The House bill is the Family Preservation Act. The Senate bill is the Child Welfare and Preventive Services Act.

Tucked away in the sterile safety of a hospital nursery, boarder babies remain unseen by politicians and just about everybody else. But the babies' invisibility is no excuse for legislators' indifference to their plight. A hospital, however well-equipped, is no substitute for a home, however humble.

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