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Newborn left in 'baby box' at Ind. fire station

The Safe Haven Baby Box was installed at the department in 2016, and is one of only two Safe Haven boxes in the U.S.


By Lincoln Wright and Bob Blake
South Bend Tribune

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — When Chief Mick Pawlik was notified Tuesday night that the silent alarm in the Safe Haven Baby Box at the Cooslpring Township Fire Department was triggered, he assumed it was another false alarm.

Several times, curious people have accidentally triggered the alarm for the box, which is located on the outside of the fire station. But it was still his responsibility to go check. Pawlik arrived at the department at 10:24 p.m.

A prototype of a baby box, where parents could surrender their newborns anonymously, is shown outside the fire station in Woodburn, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
A prototype of a baby box, where parents could surrender their newborns anonymously, is shown outside the fire station in Woodburn, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

When he got to the box, he could see there was actually something inside this time. Pawlik was hesitant when he approached it, worried someone put an animal inside as a prank.

But when he opened it, staring back at him was a newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached. The infant was wrapped in a gray sweatshirt.

The baby was transported by ambulance to Franciscan St. Anthony's Hospital in Michigan City and appeared to be healthy and in good condition. The Department of Child Services will take custody of the baby once it's released from the hospital.

The Safe Haven Baby Box was installed at the fire department on April 28, 2016, and is one of only two Safe Haven boxes in the United States. The other is located in Woodburn, Ind.

Indiana expanded its safe haven law in April, which enables a person to anonymously give up an unwanted infant without fear of arrest or prosecution. Supporters of the boxes say this helps people avoid the shame they might feel in a face-to-face interaction.

Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Pawlik excitedly talked about finding the child safe. When people call the police or the fire department, it's never for a good thing, Pawlik said. This was something good.

Asst. Chief Warren Smith said he wanted to thank the mother for doing the right thing. This could have ended a lot worse, he said, but because there was the baby box the baby was found safe.

But the Save Haven boxes never gained the approval of the Indiana Department of Health and the Department of Child Services. The organizations said there's no evidence supporting the boxes being a safe way for a child to be turned over. An infant needs to be turned over directly to a health or public safety professional, they argue.

DCS could not be reached for comment, but the department of health said in an email that the agency's position has not changed.

Smith and Pawlik, though, disagree and said they fully support the use of the boxes. Smith was the one who pushed for the volunteer fire department to get the box. Now, it's a tremendous feeling to see the box do what it was designed for.

"I believe what we did last night was something special," Smith said. "We saved a baby's life."

Monica Kelsey, a firefighter and medic and founder of Woodburn, Ind.-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes, said she is overjoyed the child was saved.

"We're thankful this mom chose the box rather than a Dumpster," she said.

Kelsey said her organization runs a 24-hour hotline (1-866-99BABY1) as part of its outreach to provide support to pregnant women that has led to positive outcomes for babies who otherwise may have been illegally abandoned.

The hotline has received more than 900 calls resulting in 132 referrals to crisis pregnancy centers, four adoptions and eight cases where they aided a woman walking into a fire station or hospital.

A mother has the right to change her mind within 30 days of dropping off the baby, Kelsey said. After 30 days, the mother's parental rights are terminated. The baby is usually available for adoption after 60 days, she said.

The organization has so far placed two baby boxes in Indiana — the one near Michigan City and one in Woodburn. Kelsey said the organization is working on putting one at a hospital under construction in the Gary/Hammond area and has had conversations about placing one at a hospital in the South Bend area. She declined to name the hospitals.

In addition to the boxes, Kelsey said the organization has been working on getting legislation passed in Ohio, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania to provide similar options in those states.

Kelsey stressed that the boxes aren't designed as a first choice, but as an option of last resort.

"The baby box isn't a good choice," Kelsey said. "It's only a good choice if it's the last choice."

Copyright 2017 South Bend Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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