Thanks to state laws and non-profit organizations, pregnant women and new mothers have another option for their babies: relinquishment without punishment or judgement through various baby safe havens.
All 50 states have safe haven laws, allowing new moms and dads the ability to relinquish their child into compassionate hands of firefighters, hospital personnel, and other official or social entities without reprisal and often anonymously.
Purpose of safe haven
The purpose of safe haven laws is to avoid “infant abandonment and parental prosecution,” according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute. These state laws allow parents to anonymously surrender their unharmed baby to a designated provider within a specific amount of time after the child’s birth.
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Texas implemented the first Safe Haven Law in 1999. Sadly, illegal abandonment continues to occur, in that state and others.
According to Charlotte Lozier, “In 2019, for example, 18 babies were relinquished safely under the Safe Haven law in Texas, but 15 babies were illegally abandoned, and of those 15, five perished.”
“Every three days in America, we’re finding these abandoned kids,” said Monica Kelsey, founder, and executive director of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
“There was a study done that found for every one child that was found, two were not,” Kelsey said. “I believe that because we get messages from workers around the country, in places like water treatment plants, and they’re finding babies that aren’t being reported to the media. You can only imagine how many babies are not found.”
Baby boxes – An anonymous option
Safe Haven Baby Boxes (SHBB) seeks to help prevent these tragedies through the installation and promotion of baby boxes and baby drawers at fire stations and hospitals.
“The baby box is an extension of [Baby Safe Haven laws] and the anonymity of the parent … this is a completely anonymous option, and they don’t have to face anyone for fear of judgement and shame,” Kelsey said.
The parent places the child in the box or drawer and can “just walk away ... and not speak to anyone,” she said. Additionally, the boxes are heated and cooled and “electronically monitored,” Kelsey said.
“The boxes call 9-11 on their own; the parent doesn’t have to do anything,” she told Pregnancy Help News. “It usually takes two minutes or less for the baby to be found [by fire station or hospital personnel].”
Currently, there are 153 active boxes in 11 states. Thirty others are “at facilities in test phase” – different stages of installation and training – and about 50 orders being worked on,” Kelsey said.
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Rescue and adoption in Florida
A box installed in 2020 at a fire station in Ocala, Fla. received its first relinquished baby earlier this year.
The baby was later adopted by the firefighter who found her and his wife. The couple had not been able to conceive and though they were approved for adoption, they had not yet been able to do so.
Although adoptions of safe haven relinquished babies happen frequently, the first responders who care for them are not usually the adopters, Kelsey said.
“It doesn’t happen frequently,” she said. “It’s absolutely a beautiful story. This story shows the process … [and] shows these babies are getting forever families. These are good-hearted families … and I think this gives birthparents a little bit of peace.”
SHBB installs an average of a box a week. So far this year, 11 infants have been placed in boxes and 133 “handoffs” (average 10 calls a day), going to fire houses and hospitals and “hand off their infant,” Kelsey said.
“We average 10 phone calls a day,” she added.
More than a box
Safe haven is more than a box, said Heather Burner, executive director of National Safe Haven Alliance (NSHA).
“We don’t want people to get confused that Safe Haven is only a baby box,” Burner said. “We want [women] to know about the nearest safe place where she can feel comfortable going.”
Education and awareness of state safe haven laws and locations are also crucial.
“Our focus isn’t on the box – it’s getting these women into these fire stations and hospitals to get care for themselves and for their infant,” she said. “But, as a last resort option, those boxes are there.”
Tweet This: Safe haven is more than a baby box, it’s getting women into safe haven locales to get care for themselves and for their infant
Both organizations seek to counsel women on all their options.
“Many times we interact with parents in crisis,” Burner said. “We take opportunities to learn how they feel about parenting their child. We want to know how we can support them in a much more holistic way.”
She shared a story about a young Texas couple her organization helped a few years ago.
The couple was at the hospital for the woman to deliver the baby and had spoken to a social worker about safe haven relinquishment. The social worker contacted Safe Haven Alliance, and, upon later speaking with the parents, Burner discussed with them different options in addition to safe haven relinquishment.
“We talk about parenting … You would be surprised about what deters a person from feeling like they can parent their child,” she said. ‘Sometimes they feel they can’t afford to do it because they can’t pay their cell phone bill. I’ve seen situations where, if you pay a $90 cell for bill for a woman, it just calms her spirit. We want to help support them.”
Adoption and temporary placement with a family member are also discussed. The couple had not thought or talked about any of those options, Burner said.
“They just came in thinking safe haven,” she said.
The parents were counseled to consider all their options and call back.
“They had many questions,” Burner recalled. “They didn’t know that they could choose an adoption plan. We ended up connecting them with an adoption agency that could answer all the questions more in-depth than we, and they ended up choosing to place the child for adoption and still have contact with their child.”
She added, “It’s important to have these conversations … so that they know there are many options, not just one.”
“We let women know about all their options so they can live with the decision, whatever that is, parenting, adoption, or safe haven surrender,” she said. “We want to come alongside these women.”
Partnerships to help women and babies
Which is what pregnancy help centers and medical clinics do. Kelsey’s group refers women to pregnancy centers if the woman is in her first or second trimester.
“They are the experts, and, in early pregnancy, they can walk alongside these women and parents and help them choose whatever option is best for them,” Kelsey said. “That’s not our wheelhouse, that’s not our specialty – our specialty is helping parents surrender in their last moment of crisis when they’re at their lowest point. We refer a lot of women [to pregnancy help centers].”
Such a partnership is a critical component of safe haven and for both organizations.
“This model is based on partnerships,” Burner said. “We can’t be the end all, beat all.”
NSHA not only serves as oversight for best practices but also works with pregnancy help centers in understanding laws that can be shared with clients.
“Our organization provides training for pregnancy centers, helping you feel comfortable saying the information,” she said. “The hotline is your biggest tool.”
Additionally, NSHA offers brochures and other information that can be added to packets pregnancy centers give to clients.
“We want parents to know all the options that exist for them.,” Burner said.
A growing endeavor
As 2023 heads into its latter six months, endeavors for baby safe havens are growing.
Burner’s organization looks to develop federal, minimal standards to safe haven laws so that there is consistency and more “unification” among state statutes. The length of time parents have to relinquish their child under safe haven laws varies by state, from as few as three days to as many as 60. North Dakota allows a full year.
NSHA also contracts with states to staff their hotlines, resulting in “increased call volume in those states … because of information being pushed out by multiple, different outlets,” Burner said.
Education about baby safe haven remains a crucial element in decreasing illegal abandonment. Mothers and fathers in crisis are the people both organizations seek to help while also saving infant lives.
“Real people need real help,” Bruner said.
Kelsey, who learned she was abandoned as a baby, has made helping women like her own mother her life mission. Working alongside communities and organizations like pregnancy centers helps her live out and work at that passion.
“Some of those women go in [to pregnancy centers] and get a pregnancy test and never go back,” she said. “You have one opportunity to get this right, one opportunity to get the information into the hands of these parents. Just in case they ignore the pregnancy, which happens a lot … at least they have the information, and they know it’s available if they need it.”
Each organization has its own toll-free hotline number pregnancy help centers can share with clients:
Safe Haven Baby Boxes: 1-866-99BABY1
National Safe Haven Alliance: 1-888-510-BABY (2229)
Read a safe haven story from the perspective of a mother here.
Editor's note: Option Line, the 24/7 bilingual contact center managed by Heartbeat International, which manages Pregnancy Help News, is partnered with the Safe Haven Alliance in connecting women who are seeking to relinquish parental rights with the resources they need. The NSHA is one of a number of organizations for which Option Line takes calls. Since PHN began work on this article, Kentucky had its second baby this year surrendered in a safe haven baby box, and safe haven baby boxes saved another baby in Indiana.