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Indiana Baby Box Proposal Sparks National Debate

Indiana lawmakers are considering installing boxes at hospitals, fire, and police stations where mothers can anonymously drop off their unwanted newborns

Advocates say the boxes are meant to be a last resort option that will save baby's lives, but the proposal has some unlikely opposition with national child welfare organizations calling it too risky and expensive.

The baby box is about the size of an incubator and will be installed in the walls of buildings – kind of like the boxes at the bank drive through that you put your money in to give to the teller.

"Once the door has been opened, an immediate 911 call will go out," Monica Kelsey, the woman behind the baby box idea, says as she demonstrates how the box works.

The box is still a prototype. The final one will be designed to meet standards set out by the Indiana State Department of Health.

Those standards are still being worked out, but there are a lot of details Kelsey says will definitely be included.

When the baby is placed in the box, for example, a weight in the bottom will trigger another 911 call. There will also be a button the mother can push to send another call to 911.

There will be no cameras on the outside of the box to give the mother complete anonymity.

"It is going to be insulated," Kelsey explains as she opens the box. "It's going to be lined with heating and cooling, climate controlled."

There is a second opening on the back of the box that fire fighters, police officers or medical professionals can open and take the baby out on the inside of the building.

How The Idea Came About

The idea started when Monica Kelsey went to South Africa on a speaking tour in December 2013. There, she saw a church using a baby box, or baby hatch as they are often called in other countries.

"I was so intrigued by this baby box," Kelsey says, remembering her reaction. "I even had them bring in the director of this. I wanted to know how many babies they had saved, what they were doing."

The image stayed with her because of her own birth story.

"I was adopted at birth and my biological mother was brutally raped and left along the side of the road. This was in 1972 when abortion was illegal in our country," Kelsey says. "At the advice of her mother, my biological grandmother paid to have me aborted at a back alley abortion clinic because of the shame my family was going to feel."

Kelsey's mother didn't go through with the abortion, but she didn't feel she could keep her child either.

Two hours after Kelsey was born, her mother walked into a hospital in the small town in Ohio where she lived, handed Kelsey to one of the nurses on duty and left.

Kelsey often imagines a scenario where her mother had her aborted or left her in an unsafe location for fear of being recognized, and she doesn't want that happening to anyone else.

"If a woman walked into our fire station here today where we're at, chances are we know this girl because we're a small community," Kelsey says. "We don't want this girl to feel she can't come to this fire station and relinquish her rights under the safe haven law. We want this box available for her."

Safe Haven Advocates Stand In Opposition

Kelsey says the box is meant to be an extension of Indiana's existing safe haven law that allows women to give up their infants by physically handing over their child to someone at a hospital, police or fire station without fear of criminal charges.

So Kelsey lobbied her State Representative Casey Cox to author a bill legalizing the boxes.

I don't think they're going to be used. Then they'll be forgotten."

- Timothy Jaccard

"It's a voluntary idea, but what we would be doing is developing standards and protocols for such modern safe devices that trigger 911 upon entry," Cox says.

The boxes are receiving a lot of criticism though from national child welfare advocacy organizations, who say they could encourage mothers to abandon their babies.

They also point to a 2012 United Nations report that condemns the boxes being used in Europe, saying they violate a child's right to know who his or her parents are.

One of those opponents is Timothy Jaccard, the New York EMT who first advocated for the safe haven laws.

"We don't think we should throw another risk factor in there to put a baby in a box where it could possibly die," Jaccard says. "If the box is left partially open or even fully open, because we are dealing with women who are in very crisis situations and are distraught, the temperature would be dropped to whatever it is outside."

Jaccard says that means a baby could freeze within two minutes if the temperatures are near or below zero degrees.

Kelsey counters that the boxes will have a back up battery in case the power goes out on the heating and cooling systems.

"Every life has value. Every life has a meaning."

- Monica Kelsey

Jaccard also worries hospitals would be held liable if a baby dies in the box--either from an equipment malfunction or because the infant wasn't healthy to begin with.

Rep. Cox says that won't be an issue as long as facilities are operating within compliance standards the Indiana State Department of Health will be charged with drafting.

But they still could be sued, even if the lawsuit is thrown out, and Jaccard points out that one minor slip up could cost hospitals big.

He also says the entire process of designing and implementing the boxes is taking time and money that would be better spent raising awareness of existing safe haven laws.

All 50 states have some kind of safe haven law, but most states, including Indiana, spend little or no money to promote it.

"Are they going to use these boxes? No, I don't think they're going to be used. Then they'll be forgotten," Jaccard says.

Kelsey knows it will cost money to install the boxes, although she hasn't been able to nail down a figure on exactly how much. Just designing the prototype has cost about $700.

Nonprofit groups have agreed to help carry the financial burden, but Kelsey says she's not worried about the cost because you can't put a price tag on a child's life.

"Every life has value. Every life has a meaning. One child being saved in this box, that's enough," she says.

A handful of hospitals in other states, including in Arizona, use similar devices called baby drawers.

Health officials there say they have only been used a couple of times, but they haven't had any problems with them either.

"I don't know if it's an improvement or a disadvantage. It's just convenient," says Mickey Kovach, the prehospital coordinator at the Cardon Children's Medical Center near Phoenix. "It's very anonymous."

The baby box bill already passed the Indiana House unanimously. The Senate will decide whether to approve it in the next couple weeks.

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