The founder of an organization that has installed boxes where mothers can leave unwanted infants is undeterred by a warning from Indiana that they are illegal and intends to make sure more mothers have protected access to them.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes founder Monica Kelsey said she will create a legal fund to defend women the state says could face child abandonment charges for using the devices, two of which have been installed in northern Indiana.
Kelsey's group has selected two more sites in central Indiana and a site in Ohio where it intends to install boxes, even though Ohio officials, like those in Indiana, say state law doesn't allow it.
Kelsey said she has consulted with lawyers in Indiana and Ohio who have told her there are no laws in either state prohibiting use of the boxes. She contends the boxes are needed to keep women from placing unwanted infants in trash bins.
Jon Keeling, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said Ohio's safe haven law allows for a baby up to 30 days old to be left with a medical worker at a hospital, fire department or other emergency organization, or a peace officer at a law enforcement agency.
"The safe haven law that we have now does not include utilization of any kind of baby box, at least in my understanding of what they're doing in Indiana," he said.
Asked for comment about the group's plan to install a baby box in Ohio, Keeling said, "We would certainly hope no one would intentionally violate state law."
Kelsey said she decided to create the legal fund after Indiana Department of Child Services Director Mary Beth Bonaventura wrote officials in the two communities where baby boxes have been installed — Woodburn and Coolspring Township — that her agency would have to treat a baby left in one of the devices as abandoned. Indiana's Safe Haven Law requires that a baby being given up for adoption be left with an emergency medical provider, Bonaventura wrote.
Kelsey said details about the defense fund will be announced Thursday.
"We are starting a defense fund in case Mary Beth Bonaventura presses charges against a mother who places her child in one of our baby boxes. We will defend her to the hilt. It is ludicrous that she would even say that," Kelsey said.
Kelsey said she is worried pregnant women who read news reports about Bonaventura's letters might be afraid to use the boxes.
"So now we have to regain our trust with these women that DCS has pushed away. That's why we're trying to connect with the women, so they understand that we stand behind them if they choose this because it is legal," she said.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes advocates for the use of the baby boxes only as a last resort, Kelsey said, and it hasn't yet come to that.
She said a hotline her agency set up for women has received more than 765 calls since September and five of those callers opted to surrender the babies at safe havens. She said two were given up in Indiana, two in Missouri and one at a firehouse in Napoleon, Ohio, on Monday. Napoleon Police Chief Robert Weitzel issued a news release Monday saying a healthy baby had been surrendered to the fire department shortly before 4 p.m. Monday and was turned over to Henry County Job and Family Services.
Kelsey said counselors at the hotline first try to talk women into contacting a crisis pregnancy center, where they would be helped through the entire process. The second choice is working with the women on an adoption plan where they would have control over finding a parent. The third option is surrendering the child to a safe haven. Kelsey said only after a woman had rejected all the other choices would the option of a baby box be mentioned.
"The box is absolutely a last resort," she said.