Founding organization of ‘baby boxes’ saves first life

It took Monica Kelsey more than two years of work to have the nation’s first Safe Haven Baby Box dedicated in her hometown of Woodburn, Indiana. It took just days for the system potentially to have saved a life.

Less than a week after the official opening of the first baby box at the Woodburn Volunteer Fire Station (another was dedicated two days later in Michigan City, Indiana), Kelsey confirmed to Our Sunday Visitor that the organization had its first life-saving moment.

On May 9, a distraught mother called the organization’s 24-hour hotline, and she reached counselor Pam Stenzel.

Out of respect for the mother, Kelsey wasn’t able to release many details of the May 9 encounter, and she did not say whether or not the baby was surrendered in one of the boxes or at another safe haven location.

However, Kelsey told OSV, “The big news is that a life has been saved. Praise God.”

“If there was anyone who could help this woman, it is Pam,” Kelsey said. “She is a hero in the pro-life movement. She was able to help the mother to surrender the baby safely and with confidentiality.”

Safe havens

The process to design a system where mothers of newborns could safely and anonymously leave their unwanted babies took years, Kelsey said.

“In short, this is about saving abandoned babies by setting up these electronically monitored boxes,” said Kelsey, who is a member of the volunteer fire department in Woodburn, as well as a speaker and leader in the pro-life movement. She hopes these padded, climate-controlled boxes will be an extension of safe haven laws, which are on the books in all 50 states. Safe haven laws allow, typically, mothers to relinquish their newborns to a person at a designated safe haven location such as a hospital, a fire station, police station or some type of health care facility without fear of legal issues.

“That’s the way it should happen,” Kelsey said. “But women aren’t doing that. They are going to these safe haven locations and dropping their newborns, some even with the placenta still attached, at the front door.”

She added that baby boxes have been very successful in developing nations because she believes that it takes the face-to-face interaction out of the surrender. 

“These women love their children, and they want to do what’s best for the child, but they don’t want to be shamed by this tough decision.”

Kelsey told Our Sunday Visitor that each year around 100 babies are found abandoned in the United States, usually in a dumpster or the woods. However, last year, 15 babies died after being left at a designated safe haven location.

“So even with these safe haven laws, we are still having babies dying,” she said.

The hope is that won’t happen if a distraught parent drops their baby off at one of Kelsey’s baby boxes. She explained that the baby box in Michigan City was strategically placed due to the fact that in the past 15 years, seven babies have been abandoned within a five-mile radius.

“We are hoping that mothers will choose this instead of a dumpster,” Kelsey said. “As soon as the door opens (on one of these boxes), a trip triggers a call to 911. A second trip on the box occurs when it detects motion on the inside, and once that motion is detected, it locks the door. So once the mother shuts the door, the door locks and she can’t even get her child out. It has to be fire or medical who have to do it from the inside of the building.”

She added that in testing the system, emergency rescue personnel have been able to get to the boxes within three minutes of an alarm being activated.

Outside of Indiana

While the dedication of both boxes has made national news, Kelsey and her organization have been working for some time now with groups from seven other states who are interested in getting these set up in their communities.

One of those interested is Heather Piepenburg of Petersburg, Illinois. She said she first learned about baby boxes after watching the award-winning documentary “The Drop Box.” The 2014 film tells the story of Pastor Lee Jong-Rak, a Christian pastor in Seoul, South Korea, who set up at his home a safe, anonymous baby box, which appears like a depository. The box has saved more than 625 babied in five years. South Korea sees an average of 600 babies abandoned each year.

After watching the film, Piepenburg found Kelsey and learned how she had gotten started in Indiana. Since then, she has set up a Facebook page (Safe Haven Baby Boxes of Illinois) to spread the word of her mission.

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Baby boxes put infants in the hands of caring adults. Shutterstock photo

“I just want to keep babies out of the trash or be a victim of some other horrible demise,” she said.

Piepenburg has been working with Illinois state Sen. Sam McCann, who himself was abandoned at age 3 and raised in foster care. In February, McCann sponsored a bill (Illinois SB 3271) that would review the state’s current safe haven law and analyze whether they have been effective or need to be updated. The bill will also explore installing “newborn safety incubators.”

“Technically, we don’t have to have any legislation to set up one of these boxes,” Piepenburg said. “If there is nothing in the law that says you can’t do it, then you can do it. So we are doing some research here in Illinois to see if there is something that says we can’t do it. Otherwise, we will start to put it together.”

She explained that the passage of legislation gives the baby box idea legitimacy and publicity for the movement. Her hope is to start in Chicago. In November 2015, the city had four abandonments.

According to Kelsey, Chicago is one of the worst “offenders” when it comes to number of abandoned babies.

Hits home

Each baby box costs between $1,500-$2,000, and the Knights of Columbus of Indiana has vowed to pay for the first 100 boxes. Kelsey and her organization have their sights set on next installing boxes in Gary and Hobart, Indiana.

“We would like to do things in twos,” she said.

Until then, she is plowing through thousands of emails of support and encouragement since the news of the first two Safe Haven Baby Boxes made national headlines.

It’s a good problem to have for a woman who was conceived in rape and was left on the doorstep of a local hospital in Ohio two hours after she was born. “This is very personal for me,” she said. “I feel passionate about educating others on the safe haven law and to do whatever it takes to save the lives of innocent babies from being abandoned.”

Because of her organization, one baby has already been saved.

“This young mother wanted to surrender her newborn in a Safe Haven Baby Box,” Kelsey stated in a Facebook post. “And, as you know, this is a last resort option we give our callers. Pam (Stenzel) spent time counseling her and advising her on other options such as an adoption plan or a parenting plan, but she was adamant that she surrender under the safe haven law. Pam gave her a location, and we confirmed yesterday that a baby was surrendered at the location Pam had her go to. Now this baby can find a forever family and be loved and adopted!”

Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.

'Baby Box' Legislation
In 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed House Enrolled Act 1016 into law. To advocate for similar legislation in your area, contact your local or state representative. The Indiana bill establishes the state to regulate: