MYRNA BROWN: It’s been eight months since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe. v. Wade in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Now, states are choosing to either embrace abortion or protect life. And for pro-lifers trying to reach mothers in crisis, the battle lines are shifting.
MONICA KELSEY: We were finding babies at the doors of safe haven locations. Now why would a mother go all the way to the hospital and leave the baby at the door?
HEATHER BURNER: If we can address the crisis that they’re in, we have found that the baby is often not the crisis. Their life is the crisis.
CHRIS HICKS: I don’t think the message that I’m giving get’s told. And when it does, it causes people to start to think what is the real best response of the pro-life community, especially in a post Roe v. Wade world.
DAWN GERAS: Maybe there will be a greater need for people looking to the safe haven laws as a legal alternative to deal with a baby that a parent feels they cannot keep.
MB: For decades, safe haven laws have been a steady, if uncelebrated, tool in the pro-life movement. But they could soon get a lot more use. In this podcast we’ll meet those working on the frontlines and learn how they are saving mothers and babies in crisis.
GPS: In a quarter mile, turn left onto East Windsor Avenue...
It’s a little after 7 p.m. Driving semi-frantically down palm tree-lined streets, I listen with one ear to my navigation while keeping both eyes peeled for a slender blond, wearing a white tee shirt, black sweats and a pinned up ponytail. I see her standing in an empty parking lot, next to a gray jeep.
BURNER: Bless your heart you found it! Oh boy, thank you for meeting me. I’m so sorry to make this complicated…
Heather Burner and I were supposed to meet at her home office—a 30-minute drive from Phoenix. Instead—and I would also add providentially—we were sitting elbow to elbow, facing a hospital entrance. Slightly scrunched, we settled in the front seats of my compact-size rental for a 40-minute-conversation.
MYRNA: Let’s start there… why am I interviewing you in my car?
BURNER: Because of the nature of what we do. We operate a 24-hour hotline, nationally and here in Arizona. And so, there are occasionally times where a mother is in need of help and boots on the ground assistance. So, that’s what I was today.
Burner says the young woman on the other end of this morning’s hotline call, was experiencing pregnancy denial syndrome.
BURNER: She knew she was pregnant from eight weeks but did not address the pregnancy in any way and get any type of support or doctor visits. She had zero interactions in regards to her pregnancy. Wanted to make sure that she did not deliver her baby alone at home.
Burner also wanted to be sure the baby wasn’t at risk for abandonment.
BABY ABANDONMENT MONTAGE:
BURNER: Unfortunately, in Arizona we’ve had three abandonments this year. Two of which did not survive. One was found in an alley. One was found in a McDonalds and then one, a parent placed the baby on a doorstep and rang a doorbell. Praise the Lord, someone answered the door and that baby was safe.
Over the last 25 years mothers in the United States have abandoned more than 1,600 babies. More than half have been found dead. But nearly 4,700 babies survived because their parents surrendered them under state safe haven laws. Texas became the first state to pass a Safe Haven Law in 1999. The Texas law says any parent can bring his or her baby, less than 60 days old, to a hospital, fire station or EMS station——no questions asked. If the baby is unharmed, parents face no criminal charges and the Department of Family and Protective Services takes custody.
Burner says it took less than 10 years before every state in the nation had its own law.
BURNER: The law is actually different in every state. The basis is the same, that a parent can surrender their unharmed infant to a designated provider. The age limit and the providers are different. Hospitals are a provider in every state.
But more work was needed to make sure the safe haven law was more than just a list of do’s and don’t. A group of law enforcement, healthcare and child advocacy leaders took on the challenge.
BURNER: They just had a lot of emotions about babies being found in dumpsters and so they started to have the discussions with legislators, what does this look like? How can we provide a safe option for people that are finding themselves in these critical situations and how can we stop finding babies in dumpsters?
In 2004, that group formed the National Safe Haven Alliance, also known as the N-S-H-A. The non-profit began providing oversight and support to safe haven providers in each state around the country. Heather Burner runs the NSHA, headquartered in Arizona. She has staff across the country.
BURNER: And we have state representatives in I think 10 or 11 of the states that are kind of boots on the ground folks, too.
Through the NSHA, safe haven providers receive free safe haven training and resources. But Burner says the resource that makes the biggest difference in the lives of mothers in crisis is the 24/7 hotline.
BURNER: So, there’s a staff of four of us that are actually on call. I am included in that.
Burner was on call the day of our interview.
BURNER: So, when she called us it was already a critical time because she was getting ready to deliver her baby. So, we kind of went into action and at that point initially because of her request for safe haven, we really wanted to explore what that looks like.
Burner says when serving mothers in crisis, she makes sure they understand what their state’s safe haven law allows.
BURNER: Here in Arizona the safe haven law allows a parent or designated agent to surrender their unharmed infant up to 30 days old to a designated safe haven provider, which includes a hospital, fire station, adoption agency, churches.
She also reminds them that safe haven should always be a woman’s last resort.
BURNER: And we say, what prevents you from parenting your child and they’ll be sitting outside of an emergency room, much like we are, but they’re homeless and they don’t have any support system and they don’t have any resources. They don’t have any coping mechanisms. So, at that point, if we can address the crisis that they’re in, we have found that the baby is often not the crisis. Their life is the crisis.
Burner says some women she serves have been assaulted. Others have been trafficked. Once those mothers are safe and out of danger, the NSHA steps in. Women who choose to raise their babies get resources like counseling, diapers, baby clothing and gift cards. And if the mother is out of state, Burner says her team will connect her with local organizations also providing basic needs. But if the mother isn’t able to raise the baby, Burner says she has other options.
BURNER: Maybe we can keep their family together. Maybe we can discuss temporary placement or adoption or what that might look like.
The young woman Burner counseled today chose to keep her baby. Burner believes it’s because the baby’s father got involved.
MYRNA: So, she is now delivering and she has her boyfriend with her.
BURNER: Yeah, he’s on his way. He should be here anytime. So, I was able to go.
MYRNA: Would you say what happened today with the young lady, was that a success
BURNER: Absolutely, because I don’t know all of the factors that are going into her situation, but she could have certainly not picked up the phone and made a different choice.
AMBI: EMERGENCY ROOM
In 20-10—before Burner became Executive Director of the NSHA—she was a pediatric ER nurse. She says she was pulled into safe haven work through tragedy.
BURNER: We had a 15 year old that had checked into the ER with abdominal pains. We checked her vital signs and then put her back in the waiting room to wait for a room to go back to. She then delivered her baby in the bathroom in the emergency room and put him in the trash can. Maybe 10 to 15 minutes later a housekeeper found him and we started life-saving efforts on the bathroom floor. Moving back into a room a little bit later, we were unsuccessful in saving his little life.(So close… he was in the hospital) It was a traumatic event for everyone.
The baby's death affected her personally. Two weeks before that baby was left in an ER bathroom trash can, Burner’s own 15-year-old son and his teenage girlfriend delivered their baby boy. But Burner says initially fear and shame kept her son and his girlfriend from coming forward with news of the pregnancy. The two kept their pregnancy a secret for weeks.
BURNER: What if… you know there are all the what ifs. So, it really hit home for me that this could have been our grandson had they not reached out, had they not received what they needed.
Burner says their unconditional love and support was what her son and his girlfriend needed. Today, her grandson is 13 years old.
BURNER: Thank the Lord he’s here and he’s just amazing and one of the lights of our life for sure.
Still, Burner says she thinks often about that baby boy and the mother who left him in that ER bathroom trash can.
BURNER: But as far as the women that I’ve helped, from 13 to 41. Some of them have master's degrees. Some of them have been homeless. I think that it is across the board. College students at major universities and then folks that have been trafficked from one state to another. So when we talk about who we target, we target reproductive years because that’s really, truly, everyone who needs to have that information.
As Burner and I prepare to part ways…
BURNER: Oh my gosh my friend thank you very much. I would squeeze you, but we’re in a car…
… one last question about the young pregnant woman who called the hotline that day.
MYRNA: And do you know how she came about knowing about the Safe Haven Hotline?
BURNER: She Googled it.
She Googled it…so I do my own “safe haven” search…
MYRNA: Hey Google, find Safe Haven hotline…
Search results include a hotline definition, abuse response call-center, a mental health hotline, help for the homeless, a suicide prevention line…And rounding out the list…
MONICA KELSEY VIDEO: When a mom walks up to one of our safe haven baby boxes and she needs to utilize this resource we have available for her, she’s going to walk directly in front of the box, she’s going to pull the little handle, she’s going to open up the door….
…safe haven with a box!
That’s the sound you make when you’re a preschooler, speed-walking around a 15,000-square-foot banquet hall, with a 25-foot-high ceiling.
KELSEY: Good Evening everyone. Thank you guys so much for coming tonight. My name is Monica Kelsey. I am the founder and current CEO of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. We’re the only organization in America today that is literally saving babies in boxes in fire stations and hospitals. I’ll tell you, if you look around here tonight, you’ll see some of those blessings running around…
It’s 6 p.m. in Hobart, Indiana, a working-class town about 30 miles southeast of Chicago. The small midwestern city is the backdrop for the annual Safe Haven Baby Box Banquet. Monica Kelsey is the woman on stage extending the welcome to a mixed bag of guests trickling in… men and women wearing sports coats, jeans, skirts and hoodies. Every year Kelsey brings together these Safe Haven Baby Box supporters and yes, children who were placed in a box when they were only hours old.
AMBI: Speed walk….speed walk… ahhhh!
KELSEY: For me, it’s kind of seeing the fruits of our labor. We work everyday not knowing if we make a difference. But when we come here we’ve made families. These kids are here with their adoptive families. And we also get to have an impression of these kids. I don’t want them growing up thinking they’re worthless. I want them to know what they’re worth and every time that we get together we celebrate you.
That’s how 50-year-old Kelsey says she grew up…loved and celebrated. Kelsey is petite, with glasses and blond-streaked bangs. We find a quiet corner of the banquet hall to talk. She reminisces about growing up in Paulding County, Ohio—a small community on the Indiana border.
KELSEY: So, my parents did a really good job when I was adopted because it was so normal for me. My older sister is Mexican. I’m dark complected and my younger sister has blond hair, blue eyes. And so from the outside looking in, everybody knew we were adopted, but they just made us feel so special. When I would go to school and people would say, oh you’re adopted? And I would be like, and you’re not?
Kelsey says growing up she was told her birth parents were young and in love but couldn’t care for her. So they placed her for adoption.
KELSEY: And that is the story that they were told when they adopted me. And so my whole life growing up, I thought I had a fairy tale family waiting for me when I would turn 18 and my birth records would be open and these people would just welcome me with open arms. It was quite the shock to learn that there was no truth to that story.
Kelsey was 37 years old when she met her biological mother in Michigan. It was 20-10.
KELSEY: That truly became the best and worst day of my life because I got to meet the woman who I had fantasized about for many, many years. Very fair skin, blond hair, blue eyes, 4’11, 100 pounds soaking wet and I didn’t look a thing like her. As I’m sitting in her living room, holding my husband’s hand, the story comes up of my adoption and I wanted to know who my biological father was.
After three hours she says she finally conjured up the nerve to ask about him.
KELSEY: Who is my biological father? I want to meet him. And she got up and walked in her bedroom and she grabbed this blue folder that was tattered and torn. You could tell that it was very aged. And she sits down on her chair and I’m sitting on her loveseat and she pulls out a police report from August of 1972. She was 17 years old. She was brutally attacked and raped and left on the side of the road.
Kelsey’s birth mother pressed charges against the man who attacked her. He was arrested.
KELSEY: When her life was finally getting back to some normalcy, she finds out she was pregnant.
It was 1972. Abortion was still illegal, even in cases of rape. But Kelsey says her birth mother was advised to have a back-alley abortion.
KELSEY: She was. Actually it was my birth grandmother that took her to a back alley abortion facility and they paid $75, which back in that day, that was a lot of money. My birth grandmother was so upset because she didn’t go through with it. And I actually asked her, why didn’t you? And she said that there was blood on the table and on the floor. She said it was just disgusting. She says, I just felt like I was doing something wrong.
Kelsey’s birth mother was hidden for the rest of her pregnancy. She gave birth in a hospital in April of 1973. Two hours after Kelsey was born, her birth mother vanished. While hospitals today are designated safe haven locations, they weren’t 50 years ago. In 1973, Kelsey was considered a Boarder baby, an infant or young child abandoned or orphaned and left in a hospital.
KELSEY: I remember sitting there thinking, this is a sad story. Like, I am so sorry for you. This is horrible. Not comprehending that not only was she telling me her story, but she was telling me mine.
It’s a story Kelsey says she initially refused to believe.
KELSEY: I just kept going back to this is not what my parents told me. Maybe this isn’t my biological mother. I just didn’t want that part to be my life. But I became an expert investigator because I was set to prove her story wrong. And what I proved was she was telling me the truth.
Kelsey and her birth mother had three years together before she died at the age of 57 in 20-13.
KELSEY: She had no more children after me. And so getting to know her, I became her daughter. The day she died I was actually sitting beside her in a hospital room, holding her hand when she took her last breath. And you know people are like, aren’t you mad at her because she abandoned you and I”m like, no. These circumstances she went through, who could blame her. And I think meeting her learning how bad it was, gave me the empathy I needed to do this today.
MYRNA: And what about your biological father?
KELSEY: I’ve never met him. I’ve spoken to him on the phone. And he truly is not part of my story. I don’t know my ethnicity, but I’m still a human being and I still have value in my life. Life isn’t worth less simply because of the way I was conceived and I didn’t deserve the death penalty for the crime of my biological father.
With the missing blanks of her life now filled, Kelsey says she found herself with an identity crisis.
KELSEY: Being conceived in rape and having to find my worth, because I struggled with worth. I struggled with worth a lot because I felt like I was that poster child for an unwanted child in America. Plus, I was a medic and a firefighter and so at 37, I buried myself in my work. I felt like saving more people on the back of an ambulance gave me worth. And, I had to truly go back to my faith and my family and find my worth again because my worth isn’t in people. My worth comes from far deeper.
She says surprisingly she found encouragement in a senatorial hopeful.
ABC NEWS REPORT AUDIO: … And more political news this morning. A mid-west Republican has reignited the firestorm over rape and pregnancy….
KELSEY: During this time, in Indiana, there was a person running for the United States Senate named Richard Murdock.
ABC NEWS REPORT AUDIO: Now during a debate with his opponent last night, Indiana Senate hopeful, Richard Murdock was asked whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
RICHARD MURDOCK: I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I come to realize that life is a gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen…
KELSEY: His words were taken out of context. The pro-abortion people just hammered him and I’m sitting in my home going, he’s defending me. He’s defending my life.
Richard Murdock’s courageous response set in motion a series of events that eventually led to the founding of Kelsey’s non-profit organization, Safe Haven Baby Boxes. After Murdock’s debate, Kelsey gave an interview to a local television station about the impact of his words on her life.
KELSEY: And I met this woman named Pam Stenzel, who was also conceived in rape. And so she’s standing there and we’re like talking to each other and we just clicked, like sisters clicked. And she actually really helped me with my worth, because she had known this her whole life.
Pam Stenzel, a seminary-trained psychologist, also ran pregnancy care centers in Florida and she was a public speaker.
KELSEY: She calls me and she goes, hey, I’m going to South Africa...do you want to come and speak with me on these stages? I’m like, who in their right mind is going to say no to that.
During the 20-13 trip, the two criss-crossed South Africa. The last leg of their trip was at a church in Cape Town. While there, Kelsey noticed what looked like a mailbox in a wall. Church members told her it was a baby safe.
KELSEY: And this baby safe was the only one in Cape Town and it was at a church. How many churches… hundreds of churches and I happened to be speaking at the church that had the baby safe. I was like… ok… I need more info here. And they said well, women bring their babies here at night when they don’t want to be seen and it rings or calls the pastor’s cell phone. And I’m like… and he just answers the phone.. How does this work?
After answering the call, Kelsey says the pastor retrieved babies from the bassinet and church members later adopted the infants.
Baby boxes aren’t a new invention. The archaic concept has existed globally for centuries in nations like Germany, Austria, Poland, and Switzerland. Much like the baby safe in South Africa, the device in Japan is called a baby hatch…in South Korea, the concept of a baby box has been used since 2009.
KELSEY: And so, I couldn’t get this out of my mind. I took some photos. On a flight back from Cape Town South Africa on a Delta napkin, I hand drew my vision of the baby box.
On our next episode…Good things come… in small boxes!
MONICA KELSEY: And I said, hey I want you to build me this and he goes, what are you going to do with it? I said, I’m going to save babies in fire stations and he’s like, have you lost your mind?
CHIEF PAWLIK: The baby was just born and so it had the umbilical cord on, had it wrapped up in an old sweatshirt, little bit bloodied in that
JENNIFER MELGOZA: It was astonishing to me. One, she was dropped off in a box two to three miles up the road from our home. And I had no idea this box existed.
MONICA: This is Mia and Mia was surrendered at Chief Lucas’ firehouse in their baby box in Seymore, Indiana a little over two years ago. There’s Chief Lucas. Remember him… (baby talk - is that you?) (laughter)
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