SOUTH BEND – The founder of an organization that installed boxes where mothers in crisis can anonymously relinquish their infants is undeterred by a warning from Indiana that the boxes are illegal. The group intends to make sure more mothers have protected access to them.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes founder Monica Kelsey said Thursday she has started a legal fund to defend women that the state says could face child abandonment charges for using the devices. Two have been installed in northern Indiana, and the group plans two more in central Indiana and one in Ohio, where officials also say state law doesn’t allow it.
Kelsey, a firefighter and paramedic who was abandoned as an infant, said she consulted with lawyers in Indiana and Ohio who told her neither state had laws prohibiting use of the boxes. She said the devices are needed to prevent women from placing their infants in trash bins, saying she won’t allow those with political agendas "to bully us into shutting them down."
The Indiana Department of Child Services recently issued a letter saying it would have to treat a baby as abandoned if left in one of the metal boxes, which have pads that warm in winter and cool in summer and alert authorities when the door is opened. Indiana’s Safe Haven Law requires that a baby being given up for adoption be left with an emergency medical provider, wrote the department’s director, Mary Beth Bonaventura.
The defense fund was started in case Bonaventura "presses charges against a mother who places her child in one of our baby boxes. We will defend her to the hilt. It is ludicrous that she would even say that," Kelsey said.
Kelsey is worried that pregnant women may now be afraid to use the boxes, which are currently installed at firehouses in Woodburn in northeast Indiana and in Coolspring Township, about 30 miles east of Gary.
"We have to regain our trust with these women that DCS has pushed away. That’s why we’re trying to connect with the women, so they understand that we stand behind them if they choose this because it is legal," she said.
Ohio’s safe haven law allows for a baby up to 30 days old to be left with a medical worker at a hospital, fire department or other emergency organization, or a peace officer at a law enforcement agency, according to Jon Keeling, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
"The safe haven law that we have now does not include utilization of any kind of baby box, at least in my understanding of what they’re doing in Indiana," he said. "We would certainly hope no one would intentionally violate state law."
No infants have been left in the boxes yet, and Safe Haven Baby Boxes advocates for their use only as a last resort, Kelsey said.
She said a hotline her agency set up has received more than 765 calls since September, and five of those callers opted to surrender the babies at safe havens: two in Indiana, two in Missouri and one in Napoleon, Ohio. Napoleon Police Chief Robert Weitzel said the healthy baby was surrendered to the fire department and turned over to Henry County Job and Family Services.
Counselors at the hotline first try to talk women into contacting a crisis pregnancy center, where they would be helped through the entire process. The second choice is working with the women on an adoption plan, where they would have control over finding a parent. The third option is surrendering the child to a safe haven.
Kelsey said only after a woman had rejected all the other choices would the option of a baby box be mentioned.