June 25, 2021

‘We have flipped the tide’

Safe Haven Baby Boxes save lives, but are about ‘so much more than the box’

The runners and coaches of the girls’ track team of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis are all smiles as they celebrate their 2021 Indiana High School Athletic Association Track and Field State Championship victory on June 5 in Indianapolis. Kaylah Pitts, left, and Alexis Parchman are in the bottom row while Coach Josiah Daniels, left, Milani Kimble, Reese Sanders, Sidney Sanders and Coach John O’Hara form the top row. (Submitted photo)

Members of the Knights of Columbus from both the council at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg and the state level pose with Monica Kelsey and the new Safe Haven Baby Box they helped make possible at Brownsburg Fire Territory Station 131 on April 30. They are Doug Feltz, left, Dan Stephens, Paul Zielinski, Larry Kunkel, Monica Kelsey, Mike Gossman and Jeffery Eder. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

BROWNSBURG—It’s a clear, warm day as about 60 people gather at the back of Brownsburg Fire Territory Station 131. Most are uniformed public servants. All are here in honor of saving the littlest of lives.

The voice of a petite woman booms through a speaker.

“Indiana is leading the way in saving the lives of children,” says Monica Kelsey, 48. She is the founder and CEO of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. The 63rd of her life-saving devices is being opened and blessed this day at the Brownsburg fire station.

“We’re the only organization that is saving lives with baby boxes at fire stations and hospitals in the United States,” she continues.

Safe Haven Baby Boxes exist as a last resort option for mothers who, for whatever reason, wish to surrender their newborn safely and anonymously.

Since the first baby box was installed in Indiana in 2016, 71 more have been placed in fire stations and hospitals around Indiana, Arkansas, Florida and Ohio, with 24 in central and southern Indiana. As of going to press, 11 babies have been saved from “death in a dumpster, trash can or who knows what other illegal way,” Kelsey tells the crowd.

“We’re going to build baby boxes”

Kelsey’s drive in saving newborns stems from her own conception in rape in 1972. When her 17-year-old biological mother gave birth to her the next year, she abandoned Kelsey at a hospital in a small town in Ohio. (Related story: Abandoned at birth, Safe Haven Baby Box founder says, ‘I was made for this’)

“Despite my conception, I know that I have value,” she tells the crowd. “And so does every baby who is abandoned for any reason.

“And I don’t ever want a frightened mother who wants to remain anonymous to feel she has no choice but to abandon her baby in a trash can or dumpster.”

She first learned of the baby box concept when she encountered one while speaking on a chastity tour in Capetown, South Africa.

When she returned home to Woodburn, Ind., she informed her husband, “We’re going to make baby boxes,” she told The Criterion later in an interview.

The name of Kelsey’s organization comes from two components critical to her mission.

The first is legislation known as Safe Haven laws. Present in all 50 states and some cities, towns and municipalities, these laws allow a parent to surrender a newborn at a designated location anonymously and, barring obvious abuse, with no questions asked. (Related: Indiana’s Safe Haven Law)

Such laws require that the infant receive medical care, then be turned over as a ward of the state and placed for adoption.

Currently, Indiana is one of only seven states whose Safe Haven law allows for surrender in a baby box. The other states are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The second component of the name of Kelsey’s organization comes from the product she designed to offer mothers another form of safe, anonymous infant-surrender—baby boxes.

‘The longest it’s taken is four minutes’

According to the Safe Haven Baby Boxes website, baby boxes are crib-like structures “installed in an exterior wall of a designated fire station or hospital. It has an exterior door that automatically locks upon placement of a newborn inside ..., and an interior door which allows a medical staff member to secure the surrendered newborn from inside the designated building.”

A silent alarm is triggered both when the baby box door is opened and again when an infant is placed inside the lit, temperature-controlled box.

“So far, the longest it’s taken for a qualified person to respond to the alarm is four minutes, but it’s been as short as 30 seconds,” notes Kelsey.

The baby boxes, which cost about $15,000 to purchase and install, include a bag of information and resource lists for the mother.

Because while Safe Haven Baby Boxes save babies from unsafe abandonment, says Kelsey, the real goal of the organization is to “advocate for mothers to keep their babies and for them to make a good choice.”

‘The hot line is our workhorse’

For that reason, she says, the organization “is so beyond the box. The box is just the draw that brings people to us, to the story. What we do on the outside of the box is so much bigger than I think anyone imagines.”

To that end, says Kelsey, “The [organization’s] hot line is our workhorse. That’s where we guide women. The box draws them to the hot line because they want an easy way out, an anonymous route, and that draws them in.”

The national hot line, which has received more than 5,000 calls since its inception, is answered by a female psychologist with years of experience working for a crisis pregnancy center, Kelsey explains.

“So now working alongside these moms that call her, she navigates them. There’s no judgment, there’s no shame. It’s trying to get her to understand that this crisis will end—we just have to make sure that the child stays safe and she stays safe, and [discuss] what we have to do to make that happen.”

Another effort of Safe Haven Baby Boxes, which now has five employees, is raising awareness of Safe Haven laws by speaking at public events, training first responders and installing billboards that include the national hot line number.

‘We’re big fans!’

One natural outcome of Safe Haven Baby Boxes is the promotion of adoption.

“Our babies our adopted, on average, within 45 days,” Kelsey notes proudly.

Just as proud is Tessa Higgs, whose 2-year-old daughter Magnolia “Nola” Higgs was surrendered in a Safe Haven Baby Box in Indiana. She and her husband Keegan, residents of Paoli, are working to have a baby box installed in a nearby hospital.

“We’re big fans of Safe Haven Baby Boxes—they gave us Nola!” Higgs says with a bright smile.

“She was born at a healthy weight, free of any drugs in her system. She was washed and wrapped in a warm towel and was actually breastfed, too, when she was handed over.

“By those things, we know she was loved and very cared-for. Just for whatever reason, her mom wasn’t able to care for her long term. The baby box was such a blessing for that mother, and obviously for us, too.”

‘Saving lives is what we’re all about’

Another fan of Safe Haven Baby Boxes is the Knights of Columbus.

“We know how important it is to save lives. Saving lives is what we’re all about,” says Dan Stephens, life director for the Knights of Columbus council at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

The parish initiated the Brownsburg Fire Territory Station 131 baby box project, says council member Mike Gossman.

“We heard about one going in at a town nearby and wanted to contribute, but we found out it was already paid for,” he explains.

“So, we reached out to Monica about getting one in Brownsburg. The parish took up a second collection, the Gabriel Project and Pro-Life ministries helped, and of course the Knights helped, too,” as well as the town’s Sertoma Club.

The fan-feeling goes both ways.

“These guys are just amazing,” says Kelsey of the Knights of Columbus during the opening of the Brownsburg baby box. “They have supported us right from the start, sometimes being the only ones who supported us. They’ve been involved in almost every single one of our installations.”

Paul Zielinski, immediate past state deputy for the Knights of Columbus and a member of St. Malachy Parish, confirms Kelsey’s comments.

“Many councils have helped by working with the local fire departments and hospitals in putting in the boxes,” he says. “It’s really been a broad-based effort.”

‘No baby is dying on our watch’

That broad-based effort comes to fruition when an installed baby box is opened in a ceremony like the one in Brownsburg. Each grand opening event includes a blessing of the baby box by a religious leader.

“It was a great experience for me, and so many of our parishioners were there,” says Father Jegan Peter, administrator of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford. He offered the blessing at the opening of the state’s most recent (as of press time) baby box—number 72—at the Bedford City Fire Department Headquarters in Bedford on June 4.

“Human life carries so little value in our society. It was a great eye-opening [experience] for everyone there to see how our Church is supportive of human life. I was glad to be a part of it and bring the message that everywhere, we can bring God’s love.”

Father John Meyer, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg, was also honored to offer the prayer of blessing over the baby box that opened at Greensburg Fire Department Station 1 in Greensburg on May 23.

“It was quite moving to hear the talks not only by civic leaders but by pro-life speakers,” says Father Meyer. “It was such a great effort by the fire station, civic organizations, the community” and Decatur County Right to Life, which was instrumental in raising funds to make the baby box possible.

“I had all kinds of thoughts during the opening ceremony,” he said. “I thought of Mary and Joseph on their trek from Bethlehem. Granted, she didn’t have to give up her baby, but surely she knew great fear and worry as they left Bethlehem. I was thinking what a safe place this baby box is.”

The Greensburg baby box was dedicated in memory of Robert Rust, a former member of St. Mary Parish who founded the Decatur County Right to Life chapter and dedicated himself to saving the lives of children. Rust died on March 28, 2020.

Back at the Brownsburg fire station, Kelsey touts the saving works of Safe Haven Baby Boxes in the battle to protect life.

“I’m proud to say we have not had a dead [abandoned] baby in our state since December 2014,” she notes. “We have literally flipped the tide in Indiana so that no baby is dying on our watch.”

(For more information on Safe Haven Baby Boxes, including a complete list of locations and how to donate, go to SHBB.org.)

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