MYRNA BROWN: Previously, we met Heather Burner, executive director of the National Safe Haven Alliance.
MYRNA TO HEATHER: Why am I interviewing you in my car?
HEATHER 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.
MB: We also met Monica Kelsey.
MONICA KELSEY: Actually it was my birth grandmother that took her to a back alley abortion facility and they paid $75. My birth grandmother was so upset because she didn’t go through with it.
MB: After meeting the woman who abandoned her as a baby, Kelsey embarked on a two-week journey that led to what she calls her life’s work.
MONICA: 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.
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.
This is Part II of our special series: Safe Delivery. Our story continues in a moment.
Monica Kelsey eagerly scribbled on a napkin while waiting for her 16-hour flight to land. She envisioned a secure, heated repository built into the exterior wall of fire stations. Her baby box would enable moms in crisis to anonymously surrender their babies, without questions.
KELSEY: I took it to a builder in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which he will be here tonight.
MB: Jason Mueller was a firefighter by day and ran a plastic fabrication company on the side.
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? What are you talking about? And I go, no, I’m serious. Babies are dying in America. They’re being left at our fire station doors. Why not put a box in there so they’ll be safe and it calls 9-1-1. And he says, I don’t know about all that, but for $700 I’ll build you whatever you want.
MB: Four weeks later, the box was done. A 2-foot-long, metal incubator about the size of a microwave. Next, Kelsey needed a way to legally install her baby box. She reached out to her state congressman, Republican Casey Cox from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
KELSEY: I said I want you to pass me a baby box bill. He goes, a what? I said a baby box bill. I’m going to put baby boxes in fire stations and hospitals to save abandoned babies. And he goes, ok. He passed the bill in 2015.
MB: Former Indiana governor Mike Pence signed House Bill 1016 into law that April. The law said the Indiana Department of Children Services had one year to submit recommendations to the state assembly and governor for the installation and operation of newborn safety incubators or baby boxes.
KELSEY: Well, the word "recommended" was taken by the Department of Health and Child Services and the last day that they had to make these protocols they came back and wrote us a letter and said we don’t recommend baby boxes, therefore we’re not doing your protocols. And so, I was almost defeated.
MB: But a mutual friend introduced Kelsey to Jim Bopp…an attorney.
KELSEY: And I asked him, can I put boxes in? Is there anything in the law that says I can or can’t. And he says there’s nothing in the law that says that you can. There’s nothing in the law that says that you can’t. You’re in a gray area. He says go ahead and install them. That’s what I needed to hear.
MB: But Kelsey had one more hurdle to clear...a big one.
KELSEY: So then I had to find a firehouse that was going to put a box in without the approval of the Indiana Department of Health and the Indiana Department of Child Services.
MB: Kelsey realized the solution was right under her roof. Her husband is the mayor of Woodburn, Indiana. And at the time, Kelsey was a firefighter for the small town’s Fire Department.
KELSEY: So, it was pretty easy to talk him into putting a box (laughs). We laugh about that now, but it wasn’t real funny back then.
MB: In April 2016, the first Safe Haven Baby Box was installed in Woodburn, Indiana. After the installation, Kelsey began doing interviews to promote it.
KELSEY: And this guy was asking me about putting babies in boxes and I was getting frustrated with him because he wasn’t understanding that if it’s a baby box or a dumpster, which one would you rather have and I couldn’t get this across to him. Well, while I was on the radio with this guy, Assistant Fire Chief Warren Smith, who’ll be here tonight, heard me on the radio.
Assistant Fire Chief Warren Smith and his boss, Chief Mick Pawlik, pick up the rest of the story:
CHIEF WARREN SMITH: Well I was listening to the radio station and I heard it and I thought it was a good idea so, I got the number and I approached our fire department about it and everybody seemed to be on board with it.
MB: Smith says every year in Indiana babies were being abandoned. Between 2001 and 20-16, twenty-two babies were abandoned and found dead, five of them within a five mile radius of Pawlik’s and Smith’s Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department.
MYRNA TO CHIEFS: So, there was a need? There was.
MB: Three weeks later, the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department installed Indiana’s second Safe Haven Baby Box. The installation occurred despite the Indiana Department of Children Services declaring baby boxes unsuitable uses of Indiana’s Safe Haven Law. Women who used the boxes faced child abandonment charges. And Assistant Chief Smith says the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department was also threatened with legal action.
SMITH: We received quite a few letters from well, the board of health, child protective services. We had just people that were just against it, sending emails, threatening us saying that they were going to shut the whole fire department down if they could. And luckily the chief here has a big spine. He says no, that’s not going to happen. We’re going to keep it open until they come and make us actually do it.
MYRNA TO CHIEFS: And nobody ever did that? Nobody ever came.
CHIEF PAWLIK: But the thing that helped, right after we were getting all of these letters is when all of a sudden, boom! We get a baby in the box.
MB: November 7th, 2017, 10:30 P.M. Chief Pawlik was off duty and at home when his pager buzzed, letting him know someone had opened the baby box at the fire station. He quickly called the other firefighter on call that night.
PAWLIK: And I was sitting in the recliner and we always call each other when we head to the station and I told him, go home, I’ll get this. It’s going to be a false alarm. But what happens if it isn’t, you know. So, I get to the station and take my time walking down the hallway. I don’t hear nothing. Walk into the office, turn my light on.
MB: Still in his pajamas, Chief Pawlik says he slowly walked over to the baby box.
PAWLIK: You couldn’t see into it. Just had holes for ventilation. So I go walking up to it. I’m getting ready to open it and I look and I actually seen something in there. And I’m sitting there. Uh-oh… now I’m thinking a little bit after Halloween, somebody’s going to put a raccoon or something in there. I’m going to open this door and it’s going to come at me and I’m going to scream like a woman, you know (laughter). I reach over and open it real easy. I stick my head down there and look and there’s that baby looking right back at me.
MB: The chief says thirty-plus years of firefighting and training did not prepare him for that moment.
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 and I’m hollering to my guy… get me some gloves, let’s check this baby out. Now mind you, the gloves are sitting in front of the cabinet, right there. But I’m so excited.
MB: They called the baby girl “Baby Hope.” Pawlik says even the ride to the hospital was memorable.
PAWLIK: We’re in that rig and we’re just giddy as two high school girls going to the prom for the first time. We’re grinning…we’re excited…And that baby was as calm as calm could be. Never a peep out of her. Never a peep.
TV ANCHOR: WSBT 22’s Jessie Schultz is at the live desk right night. Jessie this is the 2nd time a baby has been left inside that box.
MB: Six months after “Baby Hope’s” surrender, a second baby was anonymously placed in the Coolspring baby box.
TV REPORTER: The baby that was placed in the box last night still had the umbilical cord attached.
MB: That, says Chief Pawlik, was enough to convince Indiana lawmakers to expand the state’s Safe Haven Law authorizing the use of baby boxes. Since 2016, infant abandonment rates in Indiana have dropped…to zero.
On March 12, 2022, a few hundred people gather at Gino’s Banquets in Hobart, Indiana for the 5th annual Safe Haven Baby Boxes Banquet. Guests enjoy Italian baked chicken or roast beef with gravy and mac and cheese.
MONICA ON MIC: So we’re going to bring some babies up and their families so you guys can see what you guys' commitments and donations go towards when you come to one of our events…
MB: As the guests scarf down their last pieces of dessert, the five little speed walkers we met earlier join their adoptive parents and Monica Kelsey on stage.
MONICA: And we have five of them. It’s going to be a good day when I lose track, you know. I can keep track of five, although I was struggling today as they were running around.
MB: While family members take their place, Kelsey playfully points the microphone towards a dark-haired little darling in purple tights. She’s cupped securely in her daddy’s arms.
MONICA TO CHILD: And this is the little girl who’s going to replace me when I retire. See how spunky she is. Say hi. Don’t be bashful now Graces. Are you wanting to talk? She’s like no way man. So this is baby Gracie…
MB: In 2019, three-year-old Gracie Melgoza was surrendered inside a baby box at a hospital in Hammond, Indiana. That’s where Mario and Jennifer Melgoza live. The couple says they tried for years to adopt and were on the brink of giving up.
JENNIFER MELGOZA: We had gone on a couple of interviews and hopes so high…just to get that call…we decided to go with the other family and it pushed me to the point where I wanted to give up and I asked Mario, can we just quit?
MARIO MELGOZA: She wanted to basically stop our lives and move to Tennessee and try to start over and I told her, that’s not us. You know we’re not going to quit.
Not long after, the Melgozas heard about a baby left in a box.
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 we had no idea this box existed.
MB: The Melgozas immediately began the adoption process and one month later, they got the daughter they’d been waiting for.
MELGOZA: We get her stroller, car seat, playpen and then it took us forever to just set the playpen up.(laughter)
MELGOZA: I could probably disassemble an entire car or rebuild it in like two days. Something like this has to be so simple. We were just overthinking it.
MB: Now, they just think about their Gracie.
MELGOZA: She likes to wear her dresses and her tutu’s and play with my power tools. She loves my motorcycle. She loves to go for a ride on it. She is the biggest girly, girl, tom boy I have ever seen.
MB: Keegan and Tessa Higgs might take exception to that. They’re the adoptive parents of another baby girl, surrendered in a baby box.
MONICA: It’s Nola… She’s like oh no… no no no no no. Nola you know me.
MB: Little Nola can’t seem to decide which pair of arms she prefers…her mama’s or her daddy’s.
TESSA HIGGS: Ooh my goodness. Nola is a handful, but she’s been the biggest blessing to our family the last few years.
MB: The Higgs adopted Nola in 2019.
HIGGS: We will forever be thankful for Safe Haven Baby Boxes and what they do. Without them we wouldn’t have our daughter.
MB: Higgs says the annual banquets like this one are like family reunions.
HIGGS: Yeah, yeah because you know we met some of the Safe Haven Babies a couple of years ago, so it’s nice to come back together and see them and see them play and interact. I think that the banquet is important because obviously they have some of their biggest supporters in the room and they’re able to see what the outcome of what the baby box is and the families and the babies and the happiness it brings. I think it sheds light into the lives of the babies and I think it’s just great to be able to show that tonight.
AMBI AUDIENCE APPLAUSE
MB: As the Higgs, the Melgozas and the other adoptive families exit stage-left, the Safe Haven Baby Box banquet ends exactly the way it began.
PRAYER: So often you ask us to walk by faith. But tonight you’ve given us a glimpse behind the curtain to see what you’re doing in the lives of these precious children, their new families. And father I pray in a special way you would touch the precious hearts of the mothers who made the wonderful decision for their children. To give the children what they couldn’t…I pray that you will comfort and bless them in only a way that You can. And I ask this in the precious name of the powerful, risen, Lord Jesus Christ Amen. Good night everybody.
KIDS: speed walk…. Speed walk….
AMBI: [GPS] Head east toward 421 North…
MB: The next day, I head east down Interstate 94 to the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department. Driving north off the exit, I wonder if Baby Hope’s birth mother traveled down the same two-lane road. And if she did, did she notice the “Jesus is coming soon” sign tacked on a tree, or the two huge American flags flying from both sides of the road?
AMBI: [GPS] Your destination is on the left…
MB: Pulling into the parking lot, I spot an on-duty fire-fighter, heading into the two-story red brick fire house.
VOLUNTEER: Hello…..If you go right around the corner there, it’s right there…
MB: After a brief chat, he points me to the black baby box carved into the red-brick wall. The Coolspring baby box is one of 134 boxes in fire stations and hospitals in Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Florida and Ohio. But the majority of the boxes are in Indiana… 92 total. And that number is expected to grow.
LAWMAKER: We will now move to the governor’s proclamation to call a special session of the 127th session of the Indiana General Assembly. Clerk will read…
MB: On July 25th, 2022, the Indiana General Assembly reconvened for a special session. After lawmakers voted to outlaw abortion except in certain cases including rape and incest, they also allocated a whopping $87 million dollars towards programs promoting healthy pregnancies and affordable adoptions.
Half of that $87 million has been earmarked for the state’s Hoosier Families First Fund. And out of that bucket, $1 million dollars to help communities install and promote Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
LAWMAKER: All in favor say I. I. Opposed nay. Motion passes.
MB: In an October 2022 statement given to the non-profit organization Indiana Right to Life, Monica Kelsey said she was glad to see the state putting money toward this project. She said the new state funding will give Hoosier communities the opportunity to take part in spreading safe haven awareness themselves.
On our next episode… same team… different strategy!
KELSEY AND HICKS: I’m just going to say this Mr. Hicks. I’m not going to debate you and I’m not going to argue with you. I’m not trying to debate. I’m not going to be your cannon fodder. I just asked for a copy of the brochure. And I’m not going to give it to you….you’re harassing my boss…
CHRIS HICKS: It’s just morally and ethically wrong that these babies, because they got put in a box, they’re becoming part of a marketing engine, they never agreed to be part of.
MONICA KELSEY: When we’re out educating and asking people for money, people are learning about the law. That’s the whole reason nobody knew about the safe haven law because nobody was talking about it before.
HEATHER BURNER: People are going to have different ways to go about things, and that's ok.
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