Florida row over ‘baby boxes’ is part of a larger culture war
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Safe Haven Baby Boxes and A Safe Haven for Newborns are two charities with similar names and the same goal: to provide ailing mothers with a safe place to drop off their unwanted newborns, rather than throwing them in trash cans to throw or along roadsides.
But a fight between the two is brewing in the Florida Senate. An existing state law, supported and promoted by Miami-based A Safe Haven, allows parents to hand over newborns to firefighters and hospital workers without giving their names. A new bill backed by Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes would give fire stations and hospitals the option to install the group’s ventilated and air-conditioned boxes where parents could drop off their babies without interacting with fire or hospital workers to interact.
The bill recently passed unanimously in the Florida House, but there is a protracted attempt to block it in the Senate, where it could be considered this week. Opponents call the boxes costly, unnecessary and potentially dangerous to the babies, mothers, firefighters and hospital workers. Each side accuses the other of being finance-driven.
The fight gets special attention because Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature Abortions are expected to be banned soon performed more than six weeks after conception, lowering the state’s current limit of 15 weeks.
Similar baby box bills were recently approved by legislators in Kansas, Montana and Mississippi and submitted to those states’ governors for approval. West Virginia Legislature is also considering such a bill. The crates are already legal in nine states, primarily in the Midwest and South, with the largest numbers in Indiana, Arkansas and Kentucky. About 145 boxes have been installed since the first one in 2016, with 25 newborns delivered through one, says Safe Haven Baby Boxes.
Just one baby was left in Florida’s only crate, which was installed without a state permit at a central Florida fire station two years ago. The boxes open from outside the building, allowing parents to place the baby in a cradle while a bag containing the mother’s instructions and medical advice falls out. When it is closed again, the door is locked and the authorities are notified electronically. According to Safe Haven Baby Boxes, the average response time is two minutes.
“Giving women the 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 anti-abortionist. She accused A Safe Haven for Newborns of fearing a loss of grants if the boxes are installed, which the group denies.
Republican Rep. Jennifer Canady, the bill’s lead sponsor, declined an interview request. She said in a statement that her proposed legislation “would be an important next step in providing options to save lives and protect lives at every stage.”
Joel Gordon, a spokesman for A Safe Haven for Newborns and deputy chief of a fire department in suburban Fort Lauderdale, suggested Kelsey may benefit from the crates. She denies that. Her group receives mixed reviews from organizations that monitor charities.
Gordon also claimed that the bill’s supporters rejected any changes he says would make the boxes safer and the program more viable. A Safe Haven trains fire brigades and hospitals in the implementation of the applicable law.
“There is no objection to giving the mother as many potentials as possible to help save and rescue these babies. It’s the box itself and the way the box is managed that worries us,” said Gordon.
Senate Democrat Chairwoman Lauren Book, who is leading opposition to the bill, added: “We can do better than put kids in boxes. The Safe Haven Act that we currently have on the books is working.”
In 2000, Florida became one of the first states to allow babies to be placed anonymously for adoption at hospitals and fire stations. After that, parents can hand over newborns up to 7 days of age without further questions, provided there is no evidence of neglect or abuse. Since its passage, 370 newborns have been legally delivered, Gordon said.
The new law would allow, but not oblige, fire departments and hospitals to purchase the boxes, which would be rented by Kelsey’s group. It costs about $16,000 to install, and there is a $300 annual maintenance and inspection fee that is paid to Kelsey’s charity. Sometimes the installation and fees are paid for by donors, she said.
“Wasn’t that baby (in central Florida) worth the fight we put up to keep that box?” she said. ‘I think it was.”
Gordon said only five babies have been illegally abandoned in Florida since 2018, and in recent years that number has been zero. He argues that the mother of an abandoned baby benefits more from direct interaction with a firefighter or hospital worker who can assess whether she needs medical or psychological attention. This contact also gives her peace of mind that her baby is safe, he said.
Gordon said Kelsey’s boxes also do not meet safety standards for Florida public buildings and would provide a way for those who abused her newborn or kidnapped or trafficked the child to avoid detection. Gordon and Book also say the boxes give terrorists a place to plant a bomb or toxic substance, putting firefighters and hospital workers at risk — something Kelsey says has never happened before.
“Until then,” Book replied. “I want to make sure the people who are there to protect and serve our community are safe.”
A book, who was recently arrested for trespassing during a protest against the state’s proposed abortion restrictions, said the box bill is part of the broader effort by DeSantis and the legislature to impose conservative Christian morality on all Floridians, regardless of their personal beliefs.
“You can’t just look at this one piece of politics. You have to look at the whole thing that’s going on and I’m just not going to take it,” Book said.
Kelsey accused opponents of “grabbing at straws”. She said while abusers should be identified and tracked down, it’s best for the babies if their parents abandon them before the abuse results in serious injury or death.
If passed, the bill would go into effect on July 1.