INDIANAPOLIS – An Indiana proposal that would allow "baby boxes" in public places such as fire stations to give mothers in crisis a way to anonymously surrender their children faces a backlash from advocates of safe havens across the country who see it as going too far.
At least three safe haven groups have issued statements opposing the plan, which would add the boxes to an existing Indiana law that allows a newborn to be surrendered without prosecution so long as the child has not been harmed.
One group, Baby Safe Haven-New England, called the idea a "fiasco" and compared it to a 2008 safe haven law in Nebraska that resulted in children as old as 17 being abandoned at hospitals before lawmakers changed the law.
Michael Morrisey, co-founder of the New England group, has taken to Indiana radio stations and social media to oppose the baby box plan. He said Massachusetts considered baby boxes more than a decade ago but determined they wouldn’t be effective because their electronics can fail and because it would be cost-prohibitive to retrofit existing buildings to include the boxes.
The state instead decided to put up signs on fire and police stations identifying them as safe haven sites and including instructions to call 911 if no one answered the door.
He said Indiana’s existing law is sound but that the state must improve its awareness campaigns. Too often, he said, the message about the law is delivered by authority figures instead of by young people who can relate to their peers.
"It’s people the age of James Taylor trying to speak to people the age of Taylor Swift," he said, citing the celebrity musicians.
Monica Kelsey, a Woodburn firefighter and medic who is working with Republican state Rep. Casey Cox on the box proposal, said she expected to encounter disagreements over strategies for preventing abandonments but wants the focus to remain on saving children’s lives.
She emphasized that installing the boxes would be voluntary and that they should be considered a last resort for women who can’t face relinquishing their babies in person.
Kelsey said a similar concept known as baby drawers is used in some Phoenix hospitals.
"Somebody else understands what we’re trying to do, and it’s working," she said.
The boxes, which would be about 2 feet long and equipped with heating or cooling pads, would include a toll-free number staffed 24 hours a day by a counselor who would first ask the caller to surrender the baby to a person.
The boxes would also be equipped with sensors that would set off alarms when the box is opened and again when a weight is detected inside. They would include a silent alarm that mothers could activate themselves by pushing a button.
The state health department would develop regulations for the boxes; sites that install them, such as hospitals, police and fire stations and churches, would register with the state.
Cox said Friday that he has spoken with several safe haven advocates about their concerns and hopes to draw on their expertise to ensure that the bill strengthens the state’s existing law. He plans to meet with Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, who sponsored Indiana’s safe haven law when it was adopted in 2000 and is carrying the bill in the Senate.
Merritt said the proposal points out the need to better promote Indiana’s safe haven law. But he questioned whether it truly would allow for anonymous relinquishments, noting that hospitals have security cameras everywhere.
"Can anybody really give up their baby in an anonymous type of situation that they’re striving for?" Merritt said. "Is the goal of being anonymous even achievable?"
Senate Health Committee Chair Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, said she has concerns about how the proposal would work and is still studying the bill to decide whether her committee will take it up in the coming weeks.
"I’m not going to do it without giving it a lot of thought and talk with a lot of people," Miller said.