Florida fight over ‘baby boxes’ part of bigger culture war

Apr 11, 2023, 7:05 AM

FILE — Monica Kelsey and the town of Woodburn, Ind., dedicated the first Safe Haven Baby Box of i...

FILE — Monica Kelsey and the town of Woodburn, Ind., dedicated the first Safe Haven Baby Box of its kind on April 26, 2016, at the Woodburn Volunteer Fire Department. A fight is developing in Florida's legislature over a measure that would allow fire stations and hospitals to install boxes where distressed mothers could leave their unwanted newborns. The Indiana-based group Safe Haven Baby Boxes is pushing the measure. It passed the House recently and is now before the Senate, where there is an attempt to block it. (Chad Ryan/The Journal Gazette via AP, File)

(Chad Ryan/The Journal Gazette via AP, File)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Safe Haven Baby Boxes and A Safe Haven for Newborns are two charities with similar names and the same goal: providing distressed mothers with a safe place to surrender their unwanted newborns instead of dumping them in trash cans or along roadsides.

But a fight between the two is brewing in the Florida Senate. An existing state law, supported and promoted by the Miami-based A Safe Haven, allows parents to surrender newborns to firefighters and hospital workers without giving their names. A new bill, supported by the Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes, would give fire stations and hospitals the option to install the group’s ventilated and climate-controlled boxes, where parents could drop off their babies without interacting with fire or hospital employees.

The bill recently passed the Florida House unanimously, but there is a long-shot effort to block it in the Senate, where it might be considered this week. Opponents call the boxes costly, unnecessary and potentially dangerous for the babies, mothers, firefighters and hospital workers. Each side accuses the other of being financially driven.

The fight is getting extra attention because are expected to soon ban abortions performed more than six weeks after conception, lowering the state’s current limit of 15 weeks.

Similar baby-box bills have been approved recently by lawmakers in Kansas, Montana and Mississippi and sent to those states’ governors for approval. West Virginia’s legislature is also considering such a bill. The boxes are already allowed in nine states, mostly in the Midwest and South, with the largest numbers in Indiana, Arkansas, and Kentucky, respectively. About 145 boxes have been installed since the first in 2016, with 25 newborns surrendered through one, Safe Haven Baby Boxes says.

Just one baby has been left in Florida’s only box, installed two years ago at a central Florida firehouse without state authorization. The boxes open from outside the building, allowing the parent to place the baby in a bassinet as a bag containing instructions and maternal medical advice drops out. The door locks when it is reclosed and the agency is notified electronically. Safe Haven Baby Boxes says the average response time is two minutes.

“Giving women an option of (total) anonymity is just that, an option. Why would (opponents) want to take that away from women?” said the group’s founder, firefighter Monica Kelsey, who was abandoned as a newborn and is an outspoken abortion opponent. She accused A Safe Haven for Newborns of fearing a loss of grants if the boxes are installed, something the group denies.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Canady, the bill’s lead sponsor, declined an interview request. She said in a statement that her proposed law would be “an important next step to provide options to save lives and protect life at every stage.”

Joel Gordon, a spokesman for A Safe Haven for Newborns and deputy chief at a suburban Fort Lauderdale fire department, suggested that Kelsey possibly profits from the boxes. She denies that. Her group gets mixed reviews from organizations that monitor charities.

Gordon also contended that the bill’s proponents have opposed all amendments that he says would make the boxes safer and the program more workable. A Safe Haven trains fire departments and hospitals on how to implement the current law.

“It is not an objection to giving the mother as many potentials as possible to help rescue and save these babies. It’s the box itself, and the way the box is administered, that gives us concern,” Gordon said.

Senate Democratic leader Lauren Book, who heads the bill’s opposition, added, “We can do better than putting children in boxes. The safe haven law we have on the books currently is working.”

In 2000, Florida became one of the first states to allow babies to be anonymously surrendered for adoption at hospitals and firehouses. Under it, parents can hand over newborns up to 7 days old, no questions asked, assuming there is no evidence of neglect or abuse. Since its enactment, 370 newborns have been legally surrendered, Gordon said.

The new bill would allow but not require fire departments and hospitals to acquire the boxes, which would be leased from Kelsey’s group. They cost about $16,000 installed and there is a $300 annual maintenance and inspection fee, paid to Kelsey’s charity. Sometimes the installation and fees are paid by donors, she said.

“Was that baby (in central Florida) not worth the fight we have put up to keep that box?” she said. ‘I think it was.”

Gordon said only five Florida babies have been illegally abandoned since 2018, and in several recent years that number was zero. He argues that a surrendered baby’s mother benefits more from direct interaction with a firefighter or hospital worker, who can assess if she needs medical or psychological care. Such contact also provides her with certainty that her baby is safe, he said.

Gordon said Kelsey’s boxes also don’t meet Florida public building safety standards and would allow those who have abused their newborn or kidnapped or trafficked the child a way to escape detection. Gordon and Book also say the boxes give terrorists a spot to place a bomb or toxic substance, endangering firefighters and hospital workers — something Kelsey says has never happened.

“Until it does,” Book responded. “I want to make sure that the people who are there to protect and serve our community are kept safe.”

Book, who was recently arrested for trespassing during a protest against the state’s proposed abortion restrictions, said the box bill is part of broader effort by DeSantis and the legislative majority to impose conservative Christian morality on all Floridians, regardless of their personal beliefs.

“You can’t just look at this one piece of policy. You have to look at the whole of what is going on, and I’m just not going to stand for it,” Book said.

Kelsey accused opponents of “grasping at straws.” She said while abusers should be identified and tracked down, it is best for the babies if their parents give them up before the abuse leads to serious injury or death.

If enacted, the bill would take effect July 1.

United States News

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Florida fight over ‘baby boxes’ part of bigger culture war