The call came Feb. 18.
A Columbia City-area woman who had just given birth and wanted to give up the baby, she told the Safe Haven Baby Boxes' hotline operator. But she'd do so only if she didn't have to reveal her identity.
The organization had options for her – but one would have required her to drive to Woodburn, which was thought inadvisable. But through negotiation, the organization was able to secure the safe transfer of the baby girl to a firefighter and emergency medical technician in the Columbia City Walmart parking lot along U.S. 30.
“It was the only thing she would do,” said Monica Kelsey of Woodburn, the group's founder. “She drove up, dropped off the baby and drove off.”
Columbia City officials realized that the situation could have ended much differently.
“With seeing that situation unravel, they decided not to let this happen again,” Kelsey said.
Monday night, after testing and a trial period, Safe Haven was able to dedicate its 19th baby box in Indiana at the Columbia City fire station at 112 S. Chauncey St.
“This was a huge save for us,” Kelsey said in a telephone interview Monday. She remains convinced that if the organization had not intervened, the child in Columbia City could have ended up in a trash container.
Safe Haven is a nonprofit organization that places specially outfitted and monitored containers at fire stations so new parents can safely and anonymously surrender infants. The Columbia City box is the second publicly celebrated by the organization in two days.
Sunday, the group dedicated a box at the New Haven Fire Station at 910 Hartzell Road. It is the second in Allen County. Safe Haven's, and the county's, first box was at Woodburn's fire station.
The boxes are containers with a door to the outside of a fire station building. When opened, an alarm sounds to alert on-duty staff, nearby volunteers or emergency dispatchers that a child has been placed there.
The boxes contain warming and cooling features and lock after use.
The boxes are legal because Indiana is one of five states that now have a Safe Haven law. The law allows a person to anonymously surrender a healthy baby 30 days old or younger at a box without fear of criminal prosecution.
Altogether, Safe Haven has placed 23 boxes. Besides Indiana, boxes have been placed in Ohio – in Van Wert, Hicksville and Defiance – and in Fenton, Arkansas.
A firefighter and medic who was herself abandoned as an infant, Kelsey said the effort aims to eliminate dangerous infant abandonment and the infant mortality that can result.
“Women want and need anonymity,” she said, adding the organization has heard stories since its founding that have furthered her commitment to the cause.
One woman was in the midst of divorce but pregnant by someone other than her husband, Kelsey said. The woman discovered that if she did not surrender the baby anonymously, her husband would have to sign off on the choice, even though it was not his child.
Other women might be deported if they don't maintain anonymity and some have been threatened, she said.
Indiana has had nine surrenders to baby boxes this year, Kelsey said.
“2019 was a pivotal year for Safe Haven Baby Boxes – with a record number of calls to our hotline, baby box installations, surrenders and the level of awareness we provided to many communities unaware of the Safe Haven law,” she said.
The organization also provided counseling and medical help to mothers who surrendered a child, Kelsey said. The group is now working on 45 more installations, with some already in the testing phase.
“It's very rigorous testing,” Kelsey said, adding the Columbia City box has been in place since November when it began a trial period.
“We don't install a box and just flip the switch,” she added.
In New Haven, the box was blessed by outgoing Mayor Terry McDonald, who is also a pastor. The dedication was attended by about 50 people, Kelsey said.
Columbia City's event included Mayor Ryan Daniel, Fire Chief Thomas LaRue, Kelsey and Joan Western, president of the Whitley County Republican Women's Club, and Dave Koontz, executive director of Right to Life of North Central Indiana.
Although the boxes have been criticized by some who say they could be unsafe and that a baby should be surrendered in a face-to-face transaction, Columbia City officials see their importance as a last resort, LaRue said.
“Columbia City Fire Department knows how every resource sometimes has to be utilized, depending on every individual person's needs,” LaRue said. “We are proud to be one of the first 25 locations across America to provide this life-saving option to mothers in crisis.”
For more information
Safe Haven Baby Boxes has a national 24-hour hotline at 1-866-99BABY1 and a website at safehavenbabyboxes.com.