Above: Listen to an audio version of this story by Caitlyn McLaughlin, which aired on WUFT-FM.
The Ocala City Council approved the installation of Safe Haven Baby Boxes at the Martin Luther King Jr. First Responder Campus to help mothers in crisis. Ocala will be the first Florida location to have the boxes.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes were created so that mothers who are unable to care for a newborn can legally, safely and anonymously surrender their infant, helping to prevent illegal abandonment.
How does it work? The box, typically installed at hospitals and fire stations, is protected by Florida’s Safe Haven law.
Safe Haven laws decriminalize the abandonment of unharmed infants, with some restrictions. The box is installed in an exterior wall and has an exterior door, locking automatically upon placement of the infant inside the box. A personnel alarm is triggered once the box is open. An interior door allows a medical member to remove the baby from inside the box. There is also an emergency hotline that mothers in need can call.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes Founder and Chief Executive Monica Kelsey said the organization aims to help Florida’s abandonment problem. Since 2000, records show 388 babies have been abandoned in safe or unsafe environments in Florida. Thirty-four of those were found dead.
“The mayor of Ocala is adopted,” Kelsey said, “And so, you know, adoption and our ministry really spoke to him and so partnering with him first is why we decided to go with Ocala first. We’re hoping that many cities in the state of Florida will jump on board once they see the program and see how well it’s been working in the state of Indiana,” she said.
On record, seven babies have been abandoned in Marion County since 2000. Three of those were abandoned in an unsafe environment. Counties like Alachua, Duval, Lee, Palm Beach, and Orange have numbers higher than that. Miami-Dade is highest with 59 abandoned babies.
Kelsey suffered abandonment as an infant, which is why she has made it her life mission to ensure every mother has a safe anonymity option.
“The mayor is really the one that has pushed this to the point where he wants to be first,” she said, “He wants to do the program, he has studied the state of Indiana to see what we have done up here.”
There are currently 47 Safe Haven baby boxes in Indiana, six in Arizona, three in Ohio and one in Arkansas.
“We’ve launched in three other states since then. They’re all showing decreases in abandonment since we’ve launched,” she said.
Since Safe Haven’s establishment in 2016, nine infants have been given to Safe Haven boxes at a hospital, two given to a fire station, and almost 100 resulting from the emergency call-ins alone, according to the program’s website. Other types of these baby boxes have been established in countries like Austria, Germany, South Korea, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
The Ocala City Council agreed to dedicate the baby box installment on Dec. 15.
“This initiative falls under the city’s strategic goals of operational excellence and quality in place. This will allow anonymous drop-off of children and protection of the mother’s rights,” Ocala Fire Chief Shane Alexander said.