The Safe Haven Baby Box at a fire station in Carmel, Ind., looked like a library book chute. It had been available for three years for anyone who wanted to return a baby anonymously.
However, no one had ever used it until early April. When her alarm went off, Victor Andres, a firefighter, opened the box and found, to her disbelief, a newborn baby wrapped in towels.
The discovery made the local newscast, which praised the mother’s bravery, calling it “a moment of celebration”. Later that month, Mr. Andres released another newborn, a girl, from the box. In May, a third baby appeared. In the summer, three more infants were left in baby boxes across the state.
Baby boxes are part of the safe haven movement, which has long been closely tied to anti-abortion activism. Shelters offer desperate mothers a way to anonymously hand over their newborn babies for adoption and, say advocates, avoid hurting, abandoning or even killing them. Shelters can be boxes, which allow parents to avoid talking to anyone or even being seen when delivering their babies. More traditionally, shelters are places such as hospitals and fire stations, where staff members are trained to accept a face-to-face transfer from a parent in crisis.
All 50 states have safe haven laws intended to protect mothers who surrender from criminal charges. The first, known as the “Baby Moses” law, was passed in Texas in 1999, after a number of women abandoned infants in trash cans or dumpsters. But what started as a way to prevent the most extreme cases of child abuse has become a broader phenomenon, supported in particular by the religious right, which strongly promotes adoption as an alternative to abortion.
In the past five years, more than 12 states have passed laws allowing baby boxes or expanding shelter options in other ways. And shelter surrenders, say reproductive health and child welfare experts, are likely to become more common after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
During the oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Judge Amy Coney Barrett suggested that shelter laws provide an alternative to abortion by allowing women to avoid “the burden of parenthood”. In the court’s decision, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. cited shelter laws as a “modern development” that the majority believed rendered abortion rights unnecessary.
But for many adoption and women’s health experts, shelters are not a panacea.
For them, a shelter surrender is a sign that a woman has fallen through the cracks of existing systems. They may have concealed their pregnancy and given birth without prenatal care, or they may be suffering from domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness or mental illness.
Adoptions themselves could also be problematic, with women potentially unaware that they are ending their parental rights and children with little information about their origins.
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If a parent uses a safe haven, “there has been a crisis and the system has already failed one way or another,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Adoption Council.
Energize the movement
Repurchases in safe haven are still rare. The National Safe Haven Alliance estimates that 115 legal surrenders took place in 2021. In recent years, there have been over 100,000 domestic adoptions per year and over 600,000 abortions. Studies show that the vast majority of women who are denied an abortion are not interested in adoption and continue to raise their children.
But the shelter movement has become much larger, in part thanks to the leadership of a charismatic activist with anti-abortion roots, Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
With Ms Kelsey and her allies lobbying across the country, states like Indiana, Iowa and Virginia have sought to make shelter surrenders easier, faster and more anonymous – allowing older babies to being dropped off or allowing dropout parents to leave the scene without speaking to another adult or sharing a medical history.
Some who work with shelter children are particularly concerned about baby boxes. There are now over 100 across the country.
“Is this child delivered unconstrained?” asked Micah Orliss, director of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is this a parent who is in a bad way and could benefit from a little time and discussion in a warm transfer experience to make their decision?
Ms Kelsey is a former doctor and firefighter, and an adoptee who says she was abandoned at birth by her teenage mother, who had been raped.
She first encountered a “safe” baby – a concept dating back to medieval Europe – during a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was on a pro- abstinence.
She returned home to Indiana to found a nonprofit, Safe Haven Baby Boxes, and installed her first baby box in 2016.
To use one of Mrs. Kelsey’s boxes, a parent opens a metal drawer to reveal a temperature-controlled hospital bassinet. Once the baby is inside and the drawer is closed, it locks automatically; the parent cannot reopen it. An alarm goes off and facility staff gain access to the crib. The box also sends a call to 911. Twenty-one babies have been left in the boxes since 2017, and the average time a child spends inside the box is less than two minutes, Ms Kelsey said.
She raised funds to put up dozens of billboards advertising the safe haven option. The ads feature a photo of a handsome firefighter cradling a newborn baby and the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency number.
Ms. Kelsey said she was in contact with lawmakers across the country who wanted to bring the boxes to their areas and predicted that within five years her boxes would be in all 50 states.
“We can all agree that a baby should be put in my box and not in a dumpster to die,” she said.
Due to anonymity, information about parents who use shelters is limited. But Dr. Orliss of the Refuge Clinic in Los Angeles performs psychological and developmental assessments on about 15 of these babies each year, often following them through their infancy. Her research found that more than half of children have health or developmental problems, often due to inadequate prenatal care. In California, unlike Indiana, shelter surrenders must be face-to-face, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious issues such as drug use.
Yet many children do well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing manager in southern Indiana, adopted her 3-year-old daughter, Nola, after the girl was dropped off at a safe haven just hours after she was born. Ms Higgs said the birth mother called the Safe Haven Baby Box hotline after seeing one of the group’s billboards.
“Since day one she has been so healthy, happy and thriving and past all of her developmental milestones,” Ms Higgs said of Nola. “She’s perfect in our eyes.”
Legal gray areas
For some women seeking help, the first point of contact is the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency hotline.
This hotline, and another run by the Safe Haven National Alliance, tells callers where and how they can legally return children, as well as information about the traditional adoption process.
Shelter groups say they tell callers that anonymous surrenders are a last resort and give information on how to keep their babies, including ways to get diapers, rent money and temporary custody children.
“When a woman has options, she will choose what’s best for her,” Ms Kelsey said. “And if that means in her moment of crisis she chooses a baby box, we should all support her in her decision.”
But Ms Kelsey’s hotline does not discuss legal time constraints on finding the baby unless callers request it, she said.
In Indiana, which has the majority of baby boxes, state law does not specify a time frame for ending birth parents’ rights after shelter surrender or for adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, the attorney for Owen County, Ind., who has experience with infant abandonment laws in the state, birth families are free to come forward until a court terminates parental rights, which can happen 45-60 days after an anonymous inquiry. abandonment.
Since these abandonments are anonymous, they usually lead to closed adoptions. Biological parents are unable to select parents, and adoptees have little or no information about their family of origin or medical history.
Mr Hanlon, from the National Adoption Council, pointed to research showing that in the long run, biological parents feel more satisfied giving up their children if the biological and adoptive families maintain a relationship.
And in sanctuary cases, if a mother changes her mind, she must prove to the state that she is fit.
According to Ms Kelsey, since her operation began, two women who said they placed their infants in boxes have tried to regain custody of their children. Such cases can take months or even years to resolve.
Birth mothers are also not immune to legal risks and may not be able to navigate the technicalities of each state’s shelter law, said Yale medical ethicist Lori Bruce.
While many states protect mothers who surrender from criminal prosecution if the babies are healthy and unharmed, mothers in serious crisis — struggling with addiction or domestic violence, for example — may not be protected if their newborns are affected in one way or another.
The idea that a traumatized postpartum mother could “properly Google the laws is slim”, Ms Bruce said.
With Roe gone, “we know we’re going to see more abandoned babies,” she added. “My concern is that more prosecutors will be able to prosecute women for unsafely abandoning their children – or for not following the letter of the law.”
On Friday, Indiana’s governor signed a law banning most abortions, with a few exceptions.
And the shelter movement continues apace.
Ms Higgs, the adoptive mother, stayed in touch with Monica Kelsey of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I found out about Roe versus Wade, I texted Monica and was like, ‘Are you ready to get even busier?’”