A Westerville couple want Ohio to recognize that their late daughter and other stillborn babies were here and -- they mattered to their families.

Justin Welliver and his wife, Heather Johnston Welliver, delivered that message to state lawmakers earlier this year in an effort to gain support for House Bill 507.

The legislation, which was introduced Feb. 12, would allow a one-time refundable $2,000 income-tax credit for parents of stillborn babies. This would compensate parents for the fact a stillborn child cannot be claimed as a dependent, unlike children who die soon after birth, they said.

"On Nov. 6, 2014, at 12:14 p.m., my daughter, Lydia Joanne Welliver, was born silently into this world," Johnston Welliver said during testimony to the Ohio House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee on March 13. "She was perfect, but she was no longer alive."

A small constriction in the baby's umbilical cord that went undetected in every routine appointment ultimately cut off her lifeline and caused her death.

"We held her for six hours, reading to her, kissing her and telling her over and over again how much we loved her and how sorry we are," Johnston Welliver said. "We only got six hours, in our whole lifetime, with our child. Then we were forced to kiss our daughter for the last time and leave the hospital without her."

Saying goodbye was just the beginning of the couple's painful journey, Johnston Welliver said.

"Weeks later, after my milk had come in, with no baby to feed, the hospital bills started to arrive," she said.

Welliver said HB 507 would offset a portion of these unexpected costs.

"It can be a bit of a slap in the face to have to pay those bills while missing your child," he said. "For awhile, we just closed the door to Lydia's room."

He said the legislation could bring recognition to the prevalence of stillbirth in Ohio.

Ohio averaged 900 stillbirths annually from 2003 to 2016, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

The state ranked seventh in the country for the number of stillbirths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Beyond the money, and more importantly, this is a way to recognize and support thousands of grieving Ohio families that have experienced, or will experience, this tragic loss," Welliver said. "The current tax structure lacks financial parity. A baby born at 17 weeks with a heartbeat is given a birth certificate and the parents can claim them as a dependent for that year. However, a baby born at 41 weeks who dies during birth does not qualify for a birth certificate.

"Beyond the overwhelming grief, stillbirth carries with it a financial burden with expenses often reaching totals that exceed $15,000 and can include the cost of autopsy, funeral, burial or cremation expenses, missed work time and counseling."

Lindsey J. Wimmer, executive director of Star Legacy Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing perinatal and neonatal death, said parents of stillborn babies also have the same expenses as any new parent, such as prenatal appointments, cribs, car seats, birthing classes, diapers and clothes.

"The dependent-child tax deductions are designed to offset some of these costs," Wimmer said.

Aside from the financial support, Wimmer said, recognition from the state would be valuable.

"It is incredibly painful for a mother who felt this baby move inside her for nine months -- got to know his/her personality, endured the labor and delivery, and said a permanent goodbye through burial or cremation -- to mark on tax forms that she did not have a baby that year," she said.

Ohio legislation

Welliver said Ohio's legislation is modeled after a law in Minnesota, where the national Star Legacy Foundation is based.

The Wellivers founded the Ohio Star Legacy Foundation chapter in 2017. The foundation unites health professionals, families, researchers, policy makers and advocates dedicated to healthy pregnancy outcomes and stillbirth prevention. It provides education, supports research and engages in advocacy regarding pregnancy loss.

"(Minnesota lawmakers) passed similar legislation in 2016," Welliver said. "We really wanted to bring this to help Ohio families."

If HB 507 advances, Ohio would be the seventh state to approve a tax credit for parents of stillborn babies, joining Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and North Dakota.

State Rep. Anne Gonzales (R-Westerville) said she chose to sponsor the bill after hearing the Wellivers' story.

"I want to help not only this couple but others who have lost a child from stillbirth," she said. "It moved me so much, I wanted to sponsor the tax credit."

Gonzales said the legislation is in the House Ways and Means Committee, which held its last hearing May 15. She said she hopes it will move forward after the general election in November.

"We had very good testimony and no opposition," she said. "It's a good piece of legislation."

On average, Gonzales said, it would affect 900 tax filers and it is estimated to draw $1.8 million annually from the state's general revenue fund.

The bill would have to be approved in both the House and the Senate, but Gonzales' office has stated it would be possible to get it through the fall session and have Gov. John Kasich sign it by the end of the year, Welliver said.

"I think it will move this year," Gonzales said.

'Sacred space'

Beth Swartz, a registered nurse for 10 years and an employee at Mount Carmel St. Ann's for the past five years, also testified March 13 as a proponent for the bill. She was Lydia's nurse.

"As a health-care provider in labor and delivery, I have the opportunity to enter into a sacred space where mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and grandparents are actively grieving the loss of a child," she said. "With this comes a tremendous responsibility to help my patients create as many memories as possible in the limited time they have with their children."

She said her patients have the option to spend time with their children by taking photographs, bathing and dressing their daughter or son, making footprints, reading them books and singing their favorite songs.

"While this time in the hospital is difficult, I know the journey ahead is long and arduous," Swartz said. "These families leave this sacred space, only to be challenged with situations where their children are not recognized: The acquaintance who says, 'At least you are young. You will have more kids,' the denial from their employer for bereavement leave, no birth certificate being issued by the state, and not being able to claim these babies on their taxes."

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla