SEYMOUR — Seymour will install a Safe Haven Baby Box thanks to the efforts of a Columbus North High School student.
City council members unanimously accepted a donation from senior Hunter Wart of Hope during a meeting Monday.
Wart raised $10,000 by mowing yards and scrapping metal to have the baby box built with plans to install it at a fire station in Columbus as part of his senior project.
The boxes are designed as a way for an individual to surrender a baby safely, legally and anonymously, said Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc. founder Monica Kelsey.
Last month, Columbus officials denied Wart’s request to install the baby box there, saying it was not the “optimal way of dealing with the surrender of infants.”
“From what I understand, the mayor and the fire chief didn’t want to take responsibility for the box,” Wart said.
“Their official position was the only way to guarantee the safety of the child was for the mother to walk in to the fire station and hand the child to a person and also for them to assess the mother,” Kelsey said. “The problem with that is the law does not say it has to be the mother who surrenders the child.”
Under Indiana’s Safe Haven Law, individuals already can surrender an infant without risk of legal action as long as they do so at a hospital or an emergency service provider, such as a fire station or police station. Department of Child Services then takes custody of the abandoned infant.
“The Safe Haven Law has been around for 18 years,” Kelsey said. “So far in the state of Indiana, we’ve had 72 women walk into fire stations and surrender their newborn child. Three of those babies were in our baby boxes.”
The baby box gives the person a greater level of anonymity, and therefore, an individual might be more likely to use it, Kelsey said.
“Women want anonymity,” she said. “They don’t want to walk up to someone and hand the child to them. For a mother to walk up to someone, hand their child to them and basically say, ‘I want what’s best for my child and it’s not me,’ is probably the hardest thing this mother is ever going to do. What we don’t want is for a baby to be abandoned because a woman wouldn’t go into a facility.”
The decision in Columbus
Mary Ferdon, Columbus’ 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.
Columbus Fire Chief Mike Compton said the city 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.
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.
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.
“Additionally, there may also be a need for both medical care and emotional support for the parents,” Ferdon said. “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 to Wart. “If the surrendered infant is in distress, immediate lifesaving medical attention should be provided without delay.”
How the boxes operate
Kelsey was asked by Seymour Councilman Lloyd Hudson for an explanation of how the baby boxes operate.
“The boxes are placed in the side of a wall, and it’s kind of like a window that slides in,” Kelsey said. “The mom, if she chooses to surrender the child inside the box, opens the door, and a 911 call goes out.”
Once the child is placed in the box, another alarm goes off, and there is a button inside for the mother to push. “When the doors shut after the mom places the child inside, it locks that child on the inside of the box, and then only fire or medical (personnel) on the inside of the building can retrieve that child,” she said.
The boxes are temperature-controlled, she said.
Since fire stations, police stations and hospitals are manned 24 hours a day, there is always someone to respond to the alarm, making response time within five minutes, Kelsey said.
Every child that has been placed in a baby box has been adopted, Kelsey said.
“That’s the beauty of this,” she said. “We are giving women an option to not place their child in a dumpster and place it in a safe place so that their life goes on without going to prison for murder because they dumped this child in a dumpster. And the child gets to have a forever family with parents that have probably been praying for this child for years.”
The first two baby boxes were installed in Indiana in 2016 at volunteer fire stations but were moved to regular stations that are manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Other baby boxes in Indiana are located at the Woodburn Fire Department, Decatur Township Fire Department in Marion County, Chesterton Fire Department, North Vernon Fire Department and Carmel Fire Department.
Seymour’s baby box will be installed at Fire Station 3 on Meadowbrook Drive behind The Home Depot. That station was chosen because it’s the closest to Interstate 65, it’s the most private and will be the easiest building to equip.
Fire Chief Brad Lucas said he has researched the boxes for a while now, reaching out to the North Vernon and Decatur Township fire chiefs to learn more about the boxes. “It works,” Lucas said. “I can’t think of any reason not to do it.”
Kelsey said Seymour will be the most southern location available for mothers to access a baby box.
“I can tell you Kentucky has had two abandonments in the last 12 months,” she said. “We will advertise for women to come up here. I don’t care where these women come from. We’re about saving the lives of infants.”
Councilman Jerry Hackney asked if there had been any problems with existing baby boxes, such as a baby dying after being left in a box.
Kelsey said the only issue was when the Decatur Township Fire Department building was struck by lightning and caused its baby box to malfunction. The box was locked from the outside, and a sign was put up informing people it could not be used at the time.
“We’ve never had a puppy in a box, which I thought for sure we would have,” she said. “We’ve never had vandalism to any of the boxes.”
Hackney also wanted to know if firefighters are trained how to respond to a baby that is surrendered in a baby box.
Kelsey, who also is a firefighter/medic, said she provides training to emergency responders and others on how to handle a surrendered baby in a baby box and about the Safe Haven Law in general.
City officials and others who attended Monday night’s meeting applauded Wart and Kelsey for their work to save babies.
“We want to thank you both for being here tonight,” Mayor Craig Luedeman said. “Hunter, we really appreciate everything you’ve done to make this happen, and we’re excited to see it move forward for you.”
The Knights of Columbus Council 1252 in Seymour also backed the project. Several members of the Catholic-supported organization attended Monday’s meeting.
Grand Knight Mark Nowling said the group is willing to take on the annual $200 cost to lease the box from Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc., which provides maintenance services for the boxes and liability insurance.
“We are willing to incur the cost of whatever it takes to make this happen,” Nowling said. “We support life and don’t want to see or hear or read of a child dumped in a dumpster.”