Anti-abortion advocates promote anonymous “newborn insoles”

For her, the surrender of a safe haven is a sign that a woman has fallen through the cracks of existing systems. They may have hidden their pregnancy and delivered without antenatal care, or they may be suffering from domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness or mental illness.

Adoptions themselves could also be problematic, as women may be unaware that they are overriding parental rights and leave children little information about their origins.

Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue before the US Supreme Court after it overturned protections on federal abortion rights.

Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue before the US Supreme Court after it overturned protections on federal abortion rights.Recognition:Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times

When a parent uses a safe haven, “there has been a crisis and the system is already failing in some way,” said Ryan Hanlon, president of the National Council for Adoption.

promoting the movement

Safe haven surrender is still rare. The National Safe Haven Alliance estimates that 115 legal surrenders took place in 2021. In recent years, there have been more than 100,000 domestic adoptions and more than 600,000 abortions annually. Studies show that the vast majority of women who are denied an abortion are not interested in adoption and continue to raise their children.

But the Safe Haven movement has become much more prominent, in part due to the surge of a charismatic activist with roots in anti-abortion activism, Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

Firefighter Ben Krieg at the station where a baby was left in his Safe Haven drop box in April.

Firefighter Ben Krieg at the station where a baby was left in his Safe Haven drop box in April.Recognition:Kaiti Sullivan/The New York Times

With Kelsey and allies across the country, states like Indiana, Iowa, and Virginia have been trying to make safe haven surrenders easier, faster, and more anonymous — so older babies can be surrendered, or surrendering parents can leave the scene without meeting another adult speaking or sharing a medical history.

Some who work with safe haven children are particularly concerned about the baby boxes. There are now more than 100 nationwide.

“Is this infant abandoned without coercion?” asked Micah Orliss, director of the Safe Surrender Clinic at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Is that a parent who is in a bad spot and could benefit from some time and discussion in a heartfelt surrender to make their decision?”

Kelsey is a former paramedic, firefighter and adoptee who said she was abandoned at birth by her teenage mother, who had been raped.

She first encountered a baby “safe” — a concept dating back to medieval Europe — on a 2013 trip to a church in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was on a temperance lecture tour.

She returned to Indiana to start the non-profit organization Safe Haven Baby Boxes and installed her first baby box in 2016.

To use one of Kelsey’s boxes, a parent pulls open a metal drawer to reveal a temperature-controlled hospital cradle. Once baby is in and the drawer is closed, it locks automatically; the parent cannot open it again. An alarm goes off and facility staff can access the cradle. The box also sends a 911 call. Since 2017, 21 babies have been left in the crates, and the average time a child spends in the crate is less than two minutes, Kelsey said.

She has raised money to put up dozens of posters promoting the safe haven option. The ads included a photo of a handsome firefighter cradling a newborn and the emergency number for the Safe Haven Baby Box.

Monica Kelsey, Founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

Monica Kelsey, Founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes.Recognition:Kaiti Sullivan/The New York Times

Kelsey said she’s in touch with lawmakers across the country who want to get the boxes to their regions, and she predicted that within five years her boxes would be in all 50 states.

“We all agree that a baby should be put in my box to die, not in a dumpster,” she said.

Due to the anonymity, there is limited information on the parents using safe havens. But Orliss of the Safe Haven Clinic in Los Angeles does psychological and developmental evaluations on about 15 such babies a year, often following them through their infancy years. His research found that more than half of children have health or developmental problems, often stemming from inadequate prenatal care. Unlike Indiana, California’s safe haven transfer must be face-to-face, and parents are given an optional medical history questionnaire, which often reveals serious issues such as drug use.


Despite this, many children are doing well. Tessa Higgs, 37, a marketing executive in southern Indiana, adopted her 3-year-old daughter Nola after the girl was dropped off at a safe place just hours after her birth. Higgs said the birth mother called the Safe Haven Baby Box hotline after seeing one of the group’s billboards.

“From day one she was so healthy and happy and thriving and surpassing all developmental milestones,” Higgs said of Nola. “She is perfect in our eyes.”

Legal gray areas

For some women seeking help, the first port of call is the Safe Haven Baby Box emergency hotline.

This hotline and another maintained by the Safe Haven National Alliance tell callers where and how to legally give up children, along with information about the traditional adoption process.

Refuge groups say they inform callers that anonymous deliveries are a last resort and provide information on how to keep their babies, including ways to get diapers, money to rent and temporary childcare.

“When a woman is given options, she will choose what is best for her,” Kelsey said. “And if that means her choosing a baby box in her moment of crisis, then we should all support her in her decision.”

But Kelsey’s hotline doesn’t talk about the legal time restrictions on reuniting with the baby unless callers ask about it, she said.

In Indiana, where most baby boxes are found, state law does not provide a timeline for ending the birth parents’ rights after safe haven transfer or adoption. But according to Don VanDerMoere, the Owen County, Indiana, prosecutor who has experience with infant abandonment laws in the state, birth families are free to come forward until a court overturns parental rights, which is 45 to 60 days after a anonymous delivery can take place.

Because these renunciations are anonymous, they typically result in closed adoptions. Birth parents are unable to select parents, and adoptees have little to no information about their birth family or medical history.

Hanlon of the National Council for Adoption pointed to research showing that biological parents are happier in the long run about abandoning their children when biological and adoptive families are in a relationship.

And when a mother in safe havens changes her mind, she has to prove to the state that she’s fit.

According to Kelsey, since the start of her surgery, two women who said they placed their infants in boxes have attempted to reclaim custody of their children. Such cases can take months or even years to resolve.

Birth mothers aren’t immune to legal jeopardy either, and may not be able to navigate the technicalities of each state’s sanctuary laws, said Lori Bruce, a medical ethicist at Yale.


While many states protect birthing mothers from criminal prosecution when babies are healthy and unharmed, mothers in serious crises — for example, dealing with addiction or domestic violence — may not be protected if their newborns are affected in some way.

The notion that a traumatized mother “can google the laws correctly” after childbirth is tenuous, Bruce said.

With Roe’s death, “we know we’re going to see more abandoned babies,” she added. “My concern is that more prosecutors will be able to prosecute women for abandoning their children in unsafe ways — or for not following the letter of the law.”

On Friday, the Indiana governor signed legislation banning most abortions with few exceptions.

And the safe haven movement continues.

Higgs, the adoptive mother, has stayed in touch with Monica Kelsey of Safe Haven Baby Boxes. “The day I found out about Roe v Wade, I texted Monica and said, ‘Are you ready to work harder?'”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Anti-abortion advocates promote anonymous “newborn insoles”

Joel McCord

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