Safe Haven laws that allow a mother in crisis to legally surrender her baby have been commonplace for the past two decades in the United States. Yet with confusion on varying state laws and continued incidents of illegally abandoned infants, Monica Kelsey sought to find another way that women could surrender a baby safely, legally — but also anonymously.
The first Safe Haven Baby Box in Missouri debuted earlier this month, with a blessing held Aug. 8 at Mehlville Fire Protection District House 2 in south St. Louis County. The baby box, located on an external wall of the fire station and available 24 hours, seven days a week, became the 157th in the United States since Kelsey founded the Indiana-based nonprofit organization in 2016.
Kelsey was visiting South Africa in 2013 when she saw a church with a “baby safe,” a space where a mother could safely and legally surrender a baby she could no longer care for, while protecting her identity.
“I asked every question imaginable. Does this really work?” said Kelsey, who has gained a large following on TikTok and Instagram with her videos on the baby boxes. “Women sometimes don’t want their faces seen or don’t want to face judgment or shame for what they’re doing. This had never been done in America before.”
Even with Safe Haven laws in all 50 states, cases of babies being illegally abandoned still occur. In 2019, 18 babies were safely relinquished under the Safe Haven law in Texas, but 15 were abandoned unlawfully. Five of those 15 died, according to the National Safe Haven Alliance, via a study by the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Since 2017, 34 babies have been placed in Safe Haven Baby Boxes across the country and another 135 infants were safely handed off due to someone calling the national Safe Haven Baby Box hotline.
After reading a story about the baby boxes in the Wall Street Journal, Bob Gau, a parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish in Oakville, thought: Why don’t we have that in Missouri?
Gau reached out to Kelsey and quickly discovered that Missouri’s law needed to be amended to include regulations specific to the baby boxes. He worked with Republican Rep. Jim Murphy, a fellow parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, to pass legislation to amend Missouri’s Safe Place for Newborns Law, enacted in 2002. (In 2013, Missouri amended the law and became the only state in the country to also allow legal relinquishment of an infant at maternity homes and pregnancy centers in addition to hospitals, fire stations and individual first responders.)
“Last year, I saw in the state of Missouri (stories of) three different babies found in a black trash bag in a dumpster,” said Gau, who worked with several local companies to coordinate the installation. “That’s just criminal. Those babies suffocated and died. If I can do something to keep that from happening or at least minimizing it …”
Kelsey was adopted as an infant and said she understands why parents might want to remain anonymous when surrendering an infant. As an adult, she learned that her biological mother conceived her in rape at 17 in 1972, a year before the Roe vs. Wade decision.
“My mother left me at a hospital — a place she knew where people could take care of me,” Kelsey said. “But that was illegal back then. This is giving women the opportunity to have a judgement-free and shame-free way of surrendering and saving the lives of their children.”
Since word got out about the Safe Haven Baby Box in St. Louis, Mehlville Fire Protection District chief Brian Hendricks has received inquiries from other fire chiefs in Missouri about how they, too, can obtain one. While he’s never witnessed the surrender of an infant in his 20-plus year career, he thinks the main reason is that the parent doesn’t want to be seen or perceives it will be a bad experience.
“This will let them be able to surrender the baby completely anonymous and walk away without having any face-to-face contact with someone,” he said.
“On all of our engine houses, we have a sign on the door that says, ‘make a difference today,’” Hendricks said. “I think this is another example of how we strive to make a difference in people’s lives every day.”
>> How it works
• A person opens the door on the external wall and places the infant in a bassinet located inside of the climate-controlled baby box. A tote bag located inside of the baby box includes printed resources, including information on professional counseling services, which may be taken.
• Once the infant is placed inside of the baby box and the door is closed, the exterior door locks.
• A multi-tiered silent alarm system notifies first responders that there is a baby inside of the baby box. A signal is sent to a private alarm company, which in turn notifies emergency dispatchers. One alert is sent to the crew stationed at the location of the baby box. If they are on a call, an alert is sent to the next closest fire station. The fire chief and deputy fire chief also are alerted.
• Once they arrive on the scene, first responders open the interior door to attend to the infant, who is then immediately transported to the hospital for medical evaluation.
To watch a video of Safe Haven Baby Box founder Monica Kelsey demonstrating how it’s used, visit stlreview.com/3QqmHhL.
To learn more about Safe Haven Baby Boxes, visit shbb.org.
>> Missouri’s Safe Place for Newborns Law
Missouri’s Safe Place for Newborns Law allows a parent to give up their baby without criminal consequences if they feel they are unable to care for it, as long as the baby is younger than 45 days old and it’s done safely and according to law.
Safe Haven laws generally are based on the idea of avoiding infant abandonment and parental prosecution. All 50 states have laws, but may differ in criteria.
Relinquishing an infant under traditional Safe Haven legislation typically involves handing the infant directly to another individual and stating that you wish to relinquish the baby under the Safe Haven law.
By contrast, Safe Haven Baby Boxes do not involve human contact. Several states, including Missouri, guarantee complete anonymity of the individual relinquishing an infant; however, most states require that infants be relinquished unharmed to maintain anonymity.
To learn more about Missouri’s law, visit stlreview.com/3qnHo3e.