Boxed out: City officials decide baby box not appropriate for local fire station

A Columbus North High School senior hopes to continue his senior project to install a Safe Haven baby box in Columbus despite city officials declining to install it at a city fire station.

Hunter Wart approached the city last fall with his senior project proposal and was in the process of raising $10,000 for a baby box to be installed at Columbus Fire Station No. 3, 80 S. Gladstone Ave.

Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development, told Wart in an e-mail dated Jan. 3 about the city’s decision.

“After careful consideration and research by city staff, the Columbus Fire Department administration and staff, and discussion with medical providers, the city does not believe this is the optimal way of dealing with the surrender of infants,” Ferdon wrote.

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Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc., who is working with Wart on his senior project, said they have been looking for an alternate location that will accept a baby box.

“Of course, we are disappointed in the city of Columbus not wanting to save more babies from abandonment and give women 100 percent anonymity, but we are not discouraged,” Kelsey said.

Wart, who was unavailable for comment, has been raising money for the last eight months for the project and will continue to raise funds, his mother Julie Kwasniewski said. He has been collecting aluminum cans and scrap metal to fund the project.

How baby boxes work

Safe Haven baby boxes installed at fire stations allow an individual to surrender a newborn baby in a box that opens from the station’s exterior wall, which automatically locks and alerts firefighters that the newborn is there.

There are six locations in Indiana that have Safe Haven baby boxes, according to Kelsey.

Those locations are the Coolspring Township Volunteer Fire Department in Michigan City; the Woodburn Fire Department in Woodburn; the Decatur Township Fire Department in Marion County; the Chesterton Fire Department in Chesterton; the North Vernon Fire Department in North Vernon; and the Carmel Fire Department in Indianapolis.

The North Vernon Fire Department is the latest location to install a Safe Haven Baby Box, with ceremonies celebrating the installation in December.

North Vernon had the most recent case of an abandoned newborn infant in the Columbus area. An hours-old 8-pound nearly full-term baby boy was found Sept. 24, 2015 near trash cans at Christ’s Way Christian Church in North Vernon. Police said the infant was 12 hours old or less when he was found at 5:15 p.m. behind the church by the pastor’s wife, who heard noises, possibly the baby crying, while cleaning up from a youth group event.

The baby, which had part of his umbilical cord attached, was not clothed, but was wrapped in a couple of coats and other material. The baby was hospitalized at Columbus Regional Hospital, and eventually became a ward of the state, police said at the time. The hopes then were that if the baby’s biological parents could not be located, the baby would be put in foster care and then be available for adoption.

When the baby was found, police emphasized that this was not the way to surrender a baby under Indiana’s Safe Haven Law, passed in 2001. The law allows an individual to anonymously surrender an infant less than 30 days old without risk of arrest or prosecution as long as the infant is surrendered to a hospital or an establishment with emergency services such as a fire or police station.

Police said while the infant was left near a church, it was not a protected location under the Safe Haven Law.

City does research

Columbus Fire Chief Mike Compton said the city had researched the possibility of having a Save Haven baby box after Wart made his proposal last year.

The fire department was recently designated as a nationally-recognized Safe Haven facility by the National Safe Haven Alliance in December, Compton said.

Fire stations in Columbus have already been designated as locations where babies could be surrendered under state law, Compton said.

“We’ve been way in front of this,” Compton said. “We feel we’re prepared.”

City officials said no one has surrendered a baby at a Safe Place designated site in Columbus or since the Save Haven law was implemented.

As part of the Safe Place designation, 95 Columbus firefighters receive training dealing with the protocol when an infant is surrendered, said Capt. Mike Wilson.

The national Safe Haven recognition means that all six of the city’s fire stations will have signage indicating it is a designated Safe Haven location, meaning that mothers can drop off their infants who must be 30 days old or younger only when fire department personnel are present, Wilson said.

The signage will also ensure that a young parent or mother knows the location is a safe alternative to an illegal abandonment of a child, he said. The signs are in English and in Spanish.

“We want to have that warm transfer and face-to-face interaction with the parent,” Wilson said. “By law, they’re not required to answer any questions.”

Priority is medical attention

In Ferdon’s written response to Wart, she said one of the city’s highest priorities is to provide immediate medical attention, potentially lifesaving care, to a surrendered infant at any of the city’s fire stations, Ferdon said.

“Additionally, there may also be a need for both medical care and emotional support for the parents,” Ferdon wrote. “The Safe Haven Baby Box surrender does not allow us the opportunity to address those issues as the parent may leave the area before our medically-trained personnel would have an opportunity to conduct a rapid (health) assessment.”

Compton said city officials believe its Safe Haven procedures were the best option instead of having a baby box at the fire station.

Columbus firefighters work 24-hour shifts, and cover 365 days a year, but there is always the possibility that they could be away from the station during an emergency call, Ferdon said.

“If an infant was placed into a Safe Haven Baby Box while our responders were on an emergency call, we would not be able to guarantee the immediate assessment that needs to occur for the surrendered infant,” Ferdon said in her email. “If the surrendered infant is in distress, immediate lifesaving medical attention should be provided without delay.”

“It’s a false sense of security,” Ferdon said of the baby box proposal.

Firefighters have the necessary training to provide emergency medical services if a baby is surrendered at a fire station, Compton said. Individuals would also be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA, for confidentiality reasons.

Ferdon told Wart in the email that although she knew he would be disappointed with the city’s position, city officials did appreciate the time and effort he had put into the project and told him city officials “appreciate how passionate you are about this issue.”

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The Columbus Fire Department has been as a nationally recognized Safe Haven facility by the National Safe Haven Alliance. Signage is to be posted at all fire stations identifying the locations as Safe Haven sites, allowing mothers who feel they have no other alternative to surrender their babies at a safe location.

The organization is also providing newborn care packages that includes a diaper, onesie and a receiving blanket to each fire station.