Drop boxes give mothers safe haven to surrender unwanted babies

Dean Narciso
ThisWeek group
Monica Kelsey with Safe Haven Baby Boxes speaks about the importance of a drop box for unwanted babies inside the BST&G Fire District in Sunbury on Jan. 5.

Safe-haven laws have been around for two decades, providing new and expecting mothers in crisis a way to surrender their unwanted infants without criminal penalty.

In that time, thousands of mothers have dropped off babies at fire stations, hospitals or other authorized locations. But others have "dumped" their infants, said Monica Kelsey, a firefighter-paramedic who founded Indiana-based Save Haven Baby Boxes.

"Babies were still being abandoned," Kelsey said. "We found that these babies were being left at the doors of safe-haven houses, leaving them outside in a cardboard box with no heat and no one around."

She presided over a "blessing" ceremony Jan. 5 in Sunbury to christen Ohio's fourth infant drop box, a compartment to anonymously surrender babies at the BST&G Fire District at 350 W. Cherry St. BST&G stands for Berkshire, Sunbury, Trenton and Galena.

A solution for abandoned infants

Kelsey began devising the solution five years ago. In April 2016, the first secure box was installed in Indiana, and a 24-hour crisis hotline (1-866-99BABY1) was created that has fielded about 8,000 calls from desperate mothers in the United States, Canada and Mexico, she said.

The organization has referred more than 500 women to crisis pregnancy centers, assisted in seven adoption referrals and has had at least 90 legal Safe Haven surrenders. The boxes also are in Arkansas, Florida and Indiana, with plans to expand elsewhere.

Ohio's other locations in Defiance, Hicksville and Van Wert in northwest Ohio have taken in no babies, she said, but stand ready to do so.

The boxes are installed at the side or rear of a fire station, out of view of cameras, said Kelsey, who was conceived in the rape of her mother, who at age 17 then abandoned her 47 years ago.

The blessing ceremony is needed, said Kelsey, a Christian, who wants to remove shame and stigma of unwanted pregnancy but also to save lives.

"I believe if someone blesses this box before a baby is surrendered that this child is covered with prayers," she said.

'Saving Babies One Box at a Time'

The boxes are built into an exterior wall, much like mail- or bank-deposit doors.

The door automatically locks upon placement of a newborn inside. A signal notifies 911 of the location. An interior door, bearing the message, "Saving Babies One Box at a Time," allows a medical staff member inside to secure the newborn.

An infant would be taken to Nationwide Children's Hospital for evaluation before becoming a ward of the state.

After the brief ceremony with local clergy and public officials, Kelsey invited the public to look inside the temperature-controlled compartment holding a bassinet, noting, "The next person who is going to be looking in the box is a newborn baby."

The Safe Haven Baby Boxes drop box is temperature-controlled, and when a child is placed in it, a signal to 911 automatically alerts a medical staff member.

Some have criticized the boxes for making unwanted babies easy to get rid of, especially in other countries.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has called for a ban in Europe, urging instead more emphasis on family planning and other support to address root causes of abandonment.

Kelsey said that her concept is borne out of crisis and lost hope.

"These boxes are only a good option if it's the only option she has left – as a last option," said Kelsey, of Woodburn, Indiana, about 2 miles from Ohio's border.

State Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Township) praised the central location and accessibility to large and small communities.

"You could not have found a better location," he said. "The interstate is right down the street."

When discussing her work, Kelsey cited horrific cases of infanticide to justify her approach to safeguard lives.

One of those, Emile Weaver, a former Muskingum University student, on April 22, 2015, gave birth to her daughter in her sorority-house bathroom before placing the baby in a plastic bag and then in a garbage can.

She is serving a life sentence for murder with no parole.

Kelsey said Weaver should have been punished for "the worst decision in her life."

But she questions the harshness: "Do I think that was too much of a sentence? Yeah, I do.

"She could have advocated for the safe-haven law when she got out of prison. Now there is no good coming from this. We've lost two lives."

Rob Stambaugh, assistant fire chief for BST&G Fire District, said of the drop-off location: "This was certainly meant to be, and we are a better community for it. This will absolutely make a difference in saving babies’ lives.

"The alternative is a mother using a trash can or dumpster."

The $15,000 installation cost taxpayers nothing. The fire district received a grant from Discount Tire Driven to Care Foundation, and local contractors helped provide materials and labor.

dnarciso@dispatch.com

@DeanNarciso