‘My heart ached’: More Indiana baby boxes seen as necessary tool to fight infant mortality - November 4, 2019

Courtesy of Chicago Tribune • November 4, 2019

By Meredith Colias-Pete

As three babies have been left safely in baby boxes, more are coming to Northwest Indiana hospitals and firehouses — a better alternative than a busy road or freezing park, officials said.

St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago unveiled a baby box weeks ago. The cost was about $15,000, officials said. The hospital donated $10,000 to finish the installation, according to a release.

“We’ve saved three babies just in our boxes,” Safe Haven Baby Boxes founder Monica Kelsey said, referring to Northwest Indiana. “Don’t you think $15,000 is a small price to pay to save that child’s life?”

One was found within the first month it was installed at Franciscan Health Hammond. The other two were left at baby boxes in Michigan City.

“These boxes are not the answer to abandonment,” said Kelsey, a former medic and firefighter. “That’s just a tool that we use if they will do it.”

Crown Point added one Friday on the firehouse’s north side, 126 N East St., after an anonymous donation. There are now six baby boxes in Northwest Indiana with one in Michigan City at a fire station and another at Franciscan Health, and others in Chesterton at the fire station, and hospitals in Hammond and East Chicago. In late September, Lake Station officials announced a baby box is expected to be installed at the fire house.

Methodist Hospitals in Gary is planning to add a baby box in January, Director of Nursing for Women’s Services Christine Murphy said through a hospital spokeswoman.

Indiana has the Midwest’s worst infant mortality rate – 7.3%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lake County is even worse – 8.5%, overall, with 16.5% for the county’s black children, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

Three ZIP codes — in Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond — are near the top of the state’s highest infant mortality rates. East Chicago has the highest infant mortality rates, according to state officials.

Sitting on the state line, the mother who left her baby at Franciscan Health Hammond in September came from Illinois, Kelsey said.

Nationwide, more than 4,000 infants were relinquished under safe haven laws between 1999 and 2018, according to the National Safe Haven Alliance.

During that period, 1,465 more babies were abandoned illegally, with 476 found alive and 827 dead or who later died, according to the organization.

Franciscan was the first major Northwest Indiana healthcare chain to adopt baby boxes, with one built into its new hospital in Michigan City. They felt it was worth the cost – estimated around $10,000 for the box – rather than to find a baby abandoned elsewhere, officials said.

“Respect for life is one of our values and as I read about our babies being found in dumpsters, fields, plastic bags in ditched, my heart ached,” Franciscan Health director of mission integration Sister Cheryl Dazey said via email through a hospital spokesman.

Indiana’s Safe Haven Law allows people to take newborn babies to any hospital emergency room, police station or fire station without any questions asked and no risk of arrest or prosecution.

The Indiana Department of Child Services reported 48 babies have been surrendered under the state’s Safe Haven Law since it started tracking in 2008, including four in Lake, two in Porter and four in LaPorte counties.

“Our state has a Safe Haven Law for babies…but many do not want to hand their baby over at a hospital, fire station or police station for fear of the recognition,” she said. “The Safe Haven Baby Box gives them anonymity.”

It plans to add others downstate at Franciscan Health Lafayette East, and later in Rensselaer and Crawfordsville after additional fundraising, she said.

“It is my dream that at some point in the future we can say it is available at any Franciscan Health hospital,” Dazey said.

The baby boxes themselves have evolved over time, Kelsey said. The first two babies surrendered still had their placenta attached, leading the organization to add a medical bassinet.

“It was pretty apparent that we needed to do a little bit more” to get them safely into medical care, she said.

To date, 60 infants have been left safely in boxes in Indiana, Ohio, and Arkansas, Kelsey said. They helped a mother in Michigan who safely gave up the latest child, she said. Their organization can get 5,000 calls in a 24-hour period.

“The program is working,” she said. “We should have been doing this a long time ago.”