Officials from the Allen County Building Department will investigate a complaint that a device at a Woodburn fire station where people can anonymously leave a newborn is illegal because the “baby box” was installed without proper permits.
Advocates of baby boxes, also called baby safes or safe haven boxes, say they can keep new parents from placing an unwanted infant in the trash or other unsafe places.
Monica Kelsey of Woodburn, who has said publicly that she was abandoned as a baby, has promoted the boxes through Safe Haven Baby Boxes, a nonprofit organization she founded.
But the boxes have been controversial in Indiana, where state law allows a person to give up a baby anonymously without fear of prosecution at hospitals, emergency medical service providers, law enforcement agencies and fire departments.
State child welfare officials have said that for safety reasons, they prefer surrenders of babies to be done face to face – which promoters of baby boxes say may deter such actions.
The boxes are heated, cooled and padded and have an alarm that notifies emergency officials in person or by telephone.
John Caywood, building department commissioner, said the complaint about the Woodburn baby box was anonymous and came in last week from a man calling from out of state.
The department allows complaints from people who do not provide a name and investigates all complaints, he said.
Also last week, a man identifying himself as Michael Morrisey called The Journal Gazette, alleging the boxes are “dangerous” and “a piece of junk” and that the installation of the Woodburn box was illegal because of the lack of a building permit.
He also said a box at a fire station in LaPorte was illegally installed.
According to court documents in a civil suit in Allen County, Michael Morrisey of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, has been campaigning against baby boxes and Kelsey since 2016. In July, Superior Court Judge David Avery issued a preliminary injunction banning him from contacting Kelsey, her family or her organization. In his order, the judge said Morrisey's conduct was “crossing the line from advocacy to expressing personal animosity toward Kelsey.”
Kelsey alleged Morrisey had defamed her and interfered with her business and professional relationships, causing her to “live in fear,” according to the complaint filed last January by her attorney, Nicholas Podlaski.
Caywood said if the Woodburn box's installation involved changing the fire station's exterior walls, it could have required a permit. If the device contains an element requiring electricity, its installation could also require an electrical permit. Permits also would require an inspection when the project was complete, he said.
Photos of the box's installation, showing a cut through the fire station wall, are posted online at Kelsey's organization's website, www.safehavenbabyboxes.com.
The building department's permitting database shows no permits for that purpose issued to the fire station's address, Caywood said.
He confirmed that changes made without required permits could be ordered removed. But, he said, department officials also could inspect a finished change, issue a citation for lack of a permit, then suspend the penalty if the change otherwise meets building code.
Podlaski said no notification about violations of the building code had been received.
“We're not aware of any complaints from a governmental agency as to installation,” he said.
Podlaski said he would not comment about the pending litigation between Morrisey and his client.
Kelsey, who is married to Woodburn Mayor Joseph Kelsey, describes herself in court papers as “an activist and lecturer in the 'pro-life' anti-abortion movement.” She alleged that Morrisey has called her a “charlatan” and “con artist” and perpetrator of a “scam.” At one point, he made repeated calls to the Woodburn police demanding she be arrested, court documents say.
Morrisey, who acted as his own attorney, was at first allowed to participate in hearings by telephone, court documents say. But the judge later suspended that privilege after Morrisey was disruptive and failed to file documents properly addressing Kelsey's complaint, documents say.
Avery declined to ban Morrisey from speaking to Kelsey's business and professional associates about baby boxes, saying that would be an infringement of his freedom of speech. But the judge issued a default judgment against Morrisey and ordered a hearing on monetary damages, setting a Feb. 16 deadline for Morrisey to submit or contest evidence about what those damages should be.
LaPorte County building officials did not return a call Tuesday seeking information about that baby box. A healthy baby girl was surrendered to it last year, becoming Indiana's first, and only, surrender of an infant to a baby box.
The state legislature in 2017 passed a law that grandfathered the two existing boxes at the fire stations. Lawmakers also allowed hospitals to add baby boxes, though none have yet. Senate Bill 123, which would expand the option to all fire stations staffed on a 24-hour basis, was introduced this month and is pending.