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Baby boxes offer safe haven—and controversy

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Thirteen years ago, a pregnant 15-year-old stumbled into the ER where Heather Burner worked as a pediatric nurse.

The teenager complained of abdominal pain, so the staff checked her vital signs and sent her back to the waiting room. A short time later, the girl delivered a baby in the ER bathroom. She left him in the trash can.

The housekeeper discovered the infant 10 to 15 minutes later. Burner and other staff members started life-saving ­procedures on the bathroom floor. But it was too late: “We were unsuccessful in saving his little life,” Burner says.

The loss was traumatic for everyone but hit Burner especially hard. Her own 15-year-old son had just had a baby with his girlfriend, and her grandson was just 2 weeks old at the time. She couldn’t help but ask the question: What would have happened to her grandson if her son hadn’t reached out for help?

Since 1999, mothers in the United States have abandoned over 1,600 babies just like the one Burner and her colleagues tried to save—more than half found dead. But under state “safe haven” laws, there’s an alternative: Parents may surrender infants at certain locations, such as hospitals and fire stations, without fear of legal repercussions.

States aren’t required to keep statistics on surrendered babies, so the numbers are hard to track. But since 2001, the group Save Abandoned Babies Foundation has pieced together what information there is from sources like state agency and media reports, as well as Google searches. According to that data, nearly 4,700 babies have survived because their parents surrendered them under safe haven laws.

Now that abortion is no longer legal in every state, pro-life activists say safe haven protections are more important than ever. One woman is leading the charge with a media-savvy campaign and a unique solution to encourage surrender over abandonment. But critics call her intervention expensive and unnecessary, insisting it detracts from the much less flashy work of reaching desperate moms and saving vulnerable infants.

Monica Kelsey poses in 2015 with a prototype of a baby box outside her fire station in Woodburn, Ind.

Monica Kelsey poses in 2015 with a prototype of a baby box outside her fire station in Woodburn, Ind. Michael Conroy/AP

MONICA KELSEY’S MOTHER discovered she was pregnant at age 17, after a brutal attack and rape. It was 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, and abortion was illegal in most states. So, the girl’s mother took her to a back-alley abortion facility and paid $75 to terminate the baby’s life surgically. But when the teenager saw blood on the operating table and floor, she refused to go through with it.

Instead, she hid her pregnancy and gave birth in April 1973. She abandoned her baby at a hospital two hours later.

The baby, Kelsey, didn’t learn the truth until she was 37, when she met her birth mom for the first time. Her adoptive parents had said her birth parents were simply too young to care for her.

After hearing the real story, Kelsey struggled with her sense of self-worth: “I felt like I was that poster child for an unwanted child in America.”

Later, on a trip to South Africa, Kelsey visited a church that prioritized ministering to moms like hers. South Africa doesn’t have a safe haven law, so a local church installed a “baby safe” to rescue illegally abandoned infants.

On the plane ride home, Kelsey sketched a prototype of her own baby box on a Delta Air Lines napkin. She found a man willing to build it for $700.

Parents in Kelsey’s home state of Indiana already had legal protections for surrendering infants under a safe haven law enacted in 2000. It allows parents, or their designated stand-ins, to give infants to emergency medical service providers without penalty. But Kelsey worried mothers wouldn’t come forward for face-to-face surrenders. She believed baby boxes would solve that problem: “We’re filling the anonymity role of the safe haven movement.”

At the time, the state didn’t have clear regulations to govern the concept. The Indiana Department of Child Services and the Department of Health refused to draft policies and protocols for the boxes. Instead, Kelsey says, they wrote her a letter saying they didn’t recommend the strategy.

Kelsey’s lawyer told her that left baby boxes in a legal “gray area”—nothing expressly permitted or forbade them. Kelsey decided to start installing the boxes anyway. “Christ knew who He put in charge of this organization because He knew I would never give up,” she said.

In 2016, Kelsey had the first box installed in her hometown of Woodburn, Ind., where she worked as a firefighter and her husband was mayor. Then she started the search for another firehouse ­willing to install the second one without express government permission.

Kelsey took her cause to a Chicago radio station, where she argued baby boxes are the last defense against the worst-case scenario: “If it’s a baby box or a dumpster, which one would you rather have?”

After the show, an assistant fire chief at the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department near Michigan City, Ind., called her. He told her about multiple infant abandonments within a 5-mile radius of his fire station during the past decade—babies discovered in dumpsters, along fences, or in fields. “We need this box,” he told Kelsey.

Kelsey’s response? “Let’s install it.”

But that decision met with a lot of pushback. The Depart­ment of Health told them to remove it. Concerned citizens also wrote letters and emails to the department. But Kelsey and the firefighters didn’t back down.

The box officially opened in April 2016. The following year, Indiana lawmakers expanded the state safe haven law to authorize baby boxes.

COOLSPRING FIRE CHIEF MICK PAWLIK was relaxing in his recliner on Nov. 7, 2017, when his pager buzzed, ­notifying him that someone had opened the baby box at the station. It was 10:30 p.m.

Unsuspecting people sometimes opened the box and tripped the buzzer, and Pawlik thought this was probably just another false alarm. So he headed to the station in his pajamas.

Once there, he walked slowly through the deserted hallway and stepped into a corner office. Large windows revealed an empty parking lot. He flicked on the lights and walked toward the box.

Through the ventilation holes he glimpsed something moving. Pawlik eased the box open apprehensively.

A newborn baby, wrapped in an old, bloody sweatshirt, stared back at him.

Pawlik says nothing in his training prepared him for the emotions of that moment. Adrenaline coursed through his body. He hollered for a recently arrived firefighter to bring him latex gloves so he could check the infant for injuries.

Soon, medics arrived on the scene. Pawlik and the other firefighter hopped aboard a fire rig and drove the baby to the hospital: “We’re just giddy as two high school girls going to prom for the first time.” The baby lay calm and quiet the entire ride.

Staff members came out to welcome them at the hospital, not an everyday occurrence, despite what you see on TV.

“But when we came in that night, they were waiting,” Pawlik recalled. “They knew that we had a baby.”

Since those first two boxes, Kelsey has installed 132 more in eight states. Still, only 23 babies have come through all the boxes installed by Kelsey’s group. She doesn’t mind the relatively low number: “We only want these boxes used if a mother in crisis doesn’t have any other options.”

Six months after the first baby showed up in Coolspring’s box, another baby came through. Pawlik said support for the effort increased after that, but he still gets complaints, something he struggles to understand: “It saves a life. What’s wrong with society? I don’t know.”

Chris Hicks stands outside the Ocala, Fla., City Hall after speaking at a City Council meeting.

Chris Hicks stands outside the Ocala, Fla., City Hall after speaking at a City Council meeting. Photo by Guy Gerrard/Genesis

BUT CRITICS SAY it’s not that simple.

Chris Hicks lives in Clermont County, Ohio, where he works as a sales consultant. He’s a conservative, pro-life Christian and a self-described government watchdog. Hicks keeps an eye out for things that don’t look right and asks local officials a lot of questions. He says people often call him a “Don Quixote type.”

“Unlike Don Quixote, if I stick with it long enough—and I will—a lot of times the windmills come down,” Hicks said.

Monica Kelsey’s organization, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, charges an initial $11,000 program fee to each box provider. The money covers training, signs, promotion, inspection, and hotline access. Providers also pay an annual $300 recertification fee, and another estimated $5,000-$7,500 to contractors for delivery, installation, and alarm systems.

Almost all the boxes are financed through fundraising, grants, and donations. But individual municipalities can also choose to cover the costs.

Hicks didn’t know anything about Safe Haven Baby Boxes until his local fire station had one installed. He started investigating after learning taxpayer money funded it, and he didn’t like what he found.

Signs provided by Safe Haven Baby Boxes explain how they work. They mention briefly that babies can also be placed with emergency personnel. And they list the number of a crisis hotline. But signs don’t do anything else to explain the meaning of the safe haven law or help mothers understand their adoption and custody options.

Brochures with additional information were placed inside the box—inaccessible without opening the surrender door, and, Hicks pointed out, a choking hazard for infants.

In Hicks’ opinion, Kelsey’s baby boxes are the opposite of what pro-lifers should be working for: “The notion that we would be behind something that could leave a woman a year or two down the line feeling like they got exploited, that they got conned into ‘Put your baby in a box and slam the door’ and never knew about options that could have helped them raise their own baby … that is just morally and ethically wrong to me.”

Hicks said pro-lifers should instead work to destigmatize safe haven surrenders so women feel comfortable coming forward for proper prenatal care and medical delivery.

He took his concerns to Union Township’s trustees during a meeting in June 2022, including criticisms of Kelsey’s promotional materials. Kelsey, who also attended the meeting, conceded her brochure contained an error and said it had been corrected. According to Hicks, the two stood arguing in the hallway after the meeting. Hicks says he asked Kelsey to provide a copy of her updated brochure, and that she refused.

Later, Kelsey vented about Hicks to her 615,000 followers on TikTok. Hicks published videos on his YouTube channel accusing Kelsey of demonizing opponents and monetizing safe haven laws.

After that clash, Hicks ramped up his efforts to get local lawmakers to reconsider Kelsey’s pitch. He spoke at a meeting of the Clermont County Commissioners and argued lawmakers should spend their time promoting $50-$100 signs instead of costly baby boxes.

But Kelsey says fundraising for baby boxes raises awareness about safe haven laws and gets people involved with their ­mission. She points out signs won’t work unless people know what the safe haven law is to begin with. But Hicks counters that Kelsey’s baby box signs don’t explain the law either.

Kelsey says baby boxes are only a good option if they’re all a woman has left. And she notes some women leave their babies on the doorsteps of safe haven locations.

“Now why would a mother go all the way to the hospital and leave her baby at the door? Clearly, she wanted anonymity,” Kelsey said. “And so, those are the women I target.”

But Hicks says Kelsey’s promotional strategies violate the anonymity goal. After every baby box surrender, she holds a press conference thanking the mother for choosing life. Hicks says that puts an unnecessary spotlight on the woman’s situation.

Many states have a waiting period during which a mother may change her mind and reclaim her infant. Drawing attention to a surrender too early could jeopardize the mother’s ability to do so anonymously.

“When you make a lot of hoopla,” Hicks said, “it makes it very hard for them to change their mind.” He said Kelsey’s “dumpster baby narrative” sensationalizes surrenders and distracts from simpler solutions.

Although Kelsey’s group continues to make progress toward its goal of having a baby box in every state, Hicks’ complaints have had some effect. In early January, the Union Township Fire Department shut down the baby box installed less than a year before due to the Ohio Department of Health’s 24-hour staffing requirements. Firefighters covered it with one of the signs Hicks designed. Another Ohio box closed after several months of alarm issues, while a third was installed but never activated.

Since 1999, over 1,600 babies have been abandoned. Nearly 4,700 have been surrendered safely under state safe haven laws. 23 babies have been saved through Kelsey’s baby boxes.

HICKS IS KELSEY’S MOST VOCAL critic, but he isn’t the only one.

Dawn Geras is a registered nurse who helped create Illinois’ first safe haven law two decades ago. Geras spearheaded a group of friends concerned about infant abandonment in their state. They drafted a bill, took it to the Capitol, and lobbied lawmakers until it passed.

Since then, she’s worked to raise awareness of safe haven laws across the country through the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation. She also serves as a board member of the National Safe Haven Alliance.

While Geras appreciates anything that saves a baby’s life, she also wonders how else those resources could be spent: “What I could do with that money and how many more babies I could save across the country just by an awareness program.”

Geras admits Safe Haven Baby Boxes’ large media presence has helped call attention to safe haven protections. But she worries it might confuse parents into thinking they have to surrender through a box. That’s especially problematic since boxes only exist in a few states.

“What about the mom downstate who’s looking for a box and can’t find it, and then panics?” Geras asks. “What does she do then?”

Geras points out that person-to-person safe haven doesn’t take away mothers’ anonymity or immunity under law. It simply provides the opportunity for in-person help. Emergency personnel can offer moms the chance to see a doctor or a social worker. In Illinois, she says, 25 percent of women end up either keeping their babies or choosing a traditional adoption plan.

Geras is a mom of six, grandmother of 13, and great-­grandmother of one. She believes a mother who cared enough not to abort her baby probably wants her child to be safe. It’s important “for the mom to know that the baby wasn’t just placed in a cold, sterile box, but actually into the loving arms of somebody,” Geras said. “And for that somebody to say, ‘Thank you. We know it took courage to come in here. You did the right thing. The baby will be OK and loved.’”

AFTER NURSE HEATHER BURNER ­witnessed the death of the baby abandoned in the hospital bathroom, she decided she wanted to help moms ­understand their options. Today she’s the executive director for the National Safe Haven Alliance.

It provides training, signs, and support for safe haven providers. Burner and three staff members also operate a hotline for moms in crisis. Burner said three babies have been found abandoned in Arizona this year. Only one survived.

The day WORLD interviewed her, Burner had just finished helping a mom get to the hospital to deliver her baby.

The woman was experiencing what Burner calls “pregnancy denial syndrome.” She hadn’t done anything to prepare for giving birth and found the hotline ­number through a Google search.

Burner helped the woman contact her family and get to the hospital. Initially, she requested safe haven. But Burner helped her explore other options, too. She ultimately decided to keep her baby.

Burner said safe haven should always be a last resort. She echoed some of Geras’ concerns about baby boxes, but said she supports the idea of having boxes at ­hospital locations with 24/7 staffing.

Although their strategies differ, Burner said she and Kelsey are “running parallel races.” And the most important thing is spreading the word about safe haven protections everywhere.

“We need to make sure that women are not driving three states over ... because that’s where they think safe haven exists,” Burner said. “We need them to know safe haven exists in their community, that there are locations for them to get to and to be safe, and have a safe place for their baby.”

Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.


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