Indiana child welfare officials have warned an organization that installed two baby boxes at firehouses where mothers can drop off unwanted newborns anonymously to remove them, saying they question their safety and whether women who use them could face child abandonment charges.
According to letters obtained by The Associated Press, Department of Children Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura also is warning the not-for-profit group Safe Haven Baby Box not to install any more boxes. Founder Monica Kelsey says the group doesn't plan to stop.
Dawn Geras, president of the Save the Abandoned Babies Foundation in Chicago, said she doesn't think any other state allows such baby boxes.
Six hospitals in Arizona have installed drawers in their emergency rooms that allow women to drop off infants anonymously, although state law neither authorizes them nor prohibits them, said Damien Johnson, the assistant director of the Arizona Safe Baby Haven Foundation. He said the drawers have been used, although he didn't have the exact number of times.
State lawmakers last year tasked the Indiana Department of Health with recommending protocols for the use of baby boxes. Safe Haven Baby Box contends the department has ignored that requirement.
Bonaventura sent a letter to James Bopp, an attorney for Safe Haven Baby Box, on June 3 recommending the organization discontinue the use of the baby boxes in Indiana and not install any more.
"I want to be clear in stating that 'baby boxes' are not an authorized way to protect abandoned infants under Indiana law," she wrote.
Kelsey said she plans to install two more baby boxes in Indiana and another in Ohio. Bopp said the two will be installed in urban areas in central Indiana. He said the baby boxes are intended to "provide a life-saving alternative for women who desperately want to anonymously relinquish their babies in a situation where they will live and be safe."
In a letter Thursday to Gov. Mike Pence's office he said DCS has "no legal basis for the position that Baby Boxes are currently unlawful."
Another letter Bonaventura sent on April 28 to officials in Woodburn, a community about 15 miles east of Fort Wayne, and Coolspring Township southeast of Michigan City — the two places in Indiana where Safe Haven Baby Box has installed the devices — outlining her concerns.
"If an infant is abandoned by a person and placed in a 'baby box' anywhere in Indiana, DCS will be required to investigate," she wrote.
Bonaventura and Dr. Jerome Adams, commissioner of the state Department of Health, previously issued a joint statement saying Indiana's "Safe Haven law as it currently stands must be followed, because it is the best way to safely surrender an infant anonymously." The pair met recently with Kelsey over the law.
Indiana's Safe Haven Law allows someone to give up an unwanted infant less than 30 days old anonymously without fear of arrest. But Bonaventura says the law specifies that the baby must be left with an "emergency medical service provider," such as a firefighter, law-enforcement officer, paramedic or emergency medical technician. She says the law does not allow someone to leave the infant "merely at a location."
She wrote that DCS would have to treat an infant left in a baby box "as an abandoned child and could find the parent at fault because the method of surrender falls outside of the protections of the Safe Haven Law."
Vicki Thompson, the Maumee Township trustee, confirmed receiving the letter and referred questions about it to Bopp, who said he doesn't represent the township.
Jackie Atwater, the Coolspring Township trustee, confirmed receiving a letter, but said she has not yet responded. She declined to say what her response would be.
Messages seeking comment were left Thursday for the chiefs of the Woodburn and Coolspring fire departments by The Associated Press.
Bopp said the Indiana Department of Health had ignored the requirement that it prepare guidelines for installing baby boxes. He said in the letter Thursday to Pence's office that Kelsey had offered a compromise of not adding any more baby boxes than the four now planned while the Department of Health studied the issue, but said the offer was met with silence, making it "clear that the State Department of Health has no intention of complying with the legislature's mandate."
The Indiana Task Force on Infant Mortality and Child Health studied baby boxes and in November recommended against using them.
The Indiana Commission on Improving the Status of Children supported the task force's recommendation, with members saying they thought promoting the state's current Safe Haven Law was a better option. The commission also approved a motion allowing the task force to look into liability issues involving baby boxes.