Saving Lives With Baby Boxes
Indiana Considers Expanding Newborn Safe Havens
INDIANAPOLIS — With the recent theater showing of The Drop Box documentary — a story depicting a South-Korean pastor who fashioned a baby “mailbox” into the side of his home to save the lives of abandoned infants — “baby boxes” have been in the news.
Providentially, Indiana is currently trying to pass a bill (H.B. 1016), authored by Republican state Rep. Casey Cox, that will make it possible to have a version of baby boxes (referred to as “newborn safety incubators” in the bill) voluntarily placed in locations such as fire and police stations, hospitals and EMS providers, or nonprofits that have been in existence for 10 years or more and whose purpose includes child welfare or domestic-violence prevention.
The bill passed unanimously (94 to 0) in the state House recently, and in the coming weeks, it will go before the Indiana Senate.
“I raised this as an issue saying, ‘Let’s look at this existing safe-haven law and see if there are ways that we can come alongside it to support it and to make sure we are doing everything we can to provide solutions to a completely avoidable tragedy,’” Cox told the Register.
Currently, every state as well as the District of Columbia has safe-haven laws in place. Indiana’s safe-haven law allows a parent or another responsible adult to hand over an unwanted baby — no more than 30 days old — to a designated safe-haven location without risk of arrest or prosecution. (Visit NationalSafeHavenAlliance.org for a map of state safe-haven laws.)
These baby incubators are not new. Equipped with a weight sensor and temperature and oxygen controls, they are high-tech versions of the “foundling wheel”: In the 12th century, Pope Innocent III, concerned by the large number of infants dumped in the Tiber River, had foundling wheels put into the exterior walls of monasteries to save the lives of unwanted children. Now, such boxes can be found around the globe, including Europe and Asia.
Monica Kelsey, who founded a nonprofit called Safe Haven Baby Boxes, is one of the driving forces behind the bill. She’s the individual who initially brought the baby boxes to the attention of Cox.
“When you look at statistics for Indiana, 13 babies have been safely relinquished under the safe-haven law since it was enacted 15 years ago. The law is working,” Kelsey told the Register. “However, there were still 33 babies abandoned illegally in our state, and we believe that the baby box is going to help save future babies.”
Boxes Increase Anonymity
Cathie Humbarger, vice president of Indiana Right to Life, also sees a need for baby boxes in her state because, of those 33 illegally abandoned babies, 13 died: “This provision is needed to increase anonymity and so decrease the number of times newborn babies are abandoned in life-threatening circumstances. We have no idea how many more were abandoned and not found.”
Numbered among the dead is a baby boy who froze to death in a snowbank outside of an Indianapolis emergency room, a safe-haven location, in 2002.
“These women are trying to implement the safe-haven law, but they can’t make the final step of placing their child in someone else’s arms. They feel shame. This box is merely taking that out of the mix,” said Kelsey, who is a firefighter and paramedic.
Abandonment is a personal issue for Monica Kelsey. In 1972, her 17-year-old biological mother was brutally raped. Her attacker left her alongside the road to die. Six weeks later, her mother discovered that she was pregnant. She attempted to have an illegal abortion, but fortunately was not able to go through with it and went into seclusion to bring her pregnancy to term. Two hours after delivering Kelsey, she abandoned her at a hospital. Many years later, Kelsey connected with her mother, Sandy, and learned of her life-changing history.
Then, in 2013, Kelsey was in Cape Town, South Africa, for a speaking engagement at a church that happened to have a baby box. Kelsey was intrigued enough to find out more information about the box, and she even took measurements: “I came back to Indiana, and I could not get the thought of the baby box off my mind.”
But not everyone is pleased with the baby-box idea, including the United Nations.
“The United Nations came out a few years ago in response to a growing number of newborn safety incubators in Europe. They said they didn’t like the incubator system because every child should know his or her ancestry,” explained Cox, who has two young children. “My response to that is that in an ideal world we certainly want children to know and be raised by their biological mom and dad. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Let’s save the life of the child, who then can be adopted. If you don’t do that, then there’s no point in knowing where you came from.”
Critics of the newborn safety incubators are also concerned that this will make it easier for parents to abandon their children, and they worry that the mothers who abandon their infants in the baby boxes won’t get the medical attention they may need.
“Many of the criticisms about the incubators would apply equally to the existing safe-haven laws,” Cox said. “At the end of the day, we have to make sure we are doing everything we can to save those children and to value their lives.”
Yet other baby safe-haven advocates oppose the current bill and have questioned whether Indiana lawmakers have done enough research into the best ways to combat and stop newborn abandonment.
“The Indiana safe-haven law has never had an awareness program aimed at young women,” said Mike and Jean Morrisey of Baby Safe Haven New England in an email to the Register. “Indiana should follow states with the proven best programs at stopping newborn abandonments.”
‘Another Way to Save Lives’
However, Humbarger contends, “In a perfect world, there would be no desperate mothers who are convinced the only way out of their crisis is to ‘get rid’ of their children. This [the baby box] is a much more responsible act by the mother than abandoning the newborn in a dumpster.”
The boxes from Safe Haven Baby Boxes will be equipped with an 800 number. That number will also be on all of the organization’s literature, which will be placed in state schools and colleges.
“We want girls to call this number because we are going to offer them alternatives to this box. We want to offer them a parenting or adoption plan,” said Kelsey. “If that girl still wants to abandon her baby, we’ll try to persuade her to walk into a fire or police station or a hospital and to get medical care. We don’t want her to place her child in this box, but what we certainly don’t want is for her to not have a final leg to stand on.”
Indiana’s bill is not only bringing attention to this new concept, it’s shining a spotlight on the existing safe-haven laws and making people more aware of them, according to advocates.
“It has provided us with a vehicle to talk about standardizing signage for fire stations and hospitals. It has already started a conversation in Indiana about whether we are doing enough for our existing law,” said Cox.
“The baby incubator is not intended to supplant that. It’s to target the 33 illegal abandonments that we know about and provide another way to save lives.”
Lori Hadacek Chaplin
writes from Idaho.
- March 22-April 4, 2015