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Wis. ambulance service is first in state with Safe Haven Baby Box

Reedsburg Ambulance paramedics will be notified when the system is used and will transport the infant to Reedsburg Area Medical Center for evaulation

By John Gittings

REEDSBURG, Wis. — Parents who are unable to raise a child now have an option to anonymously and safely surrender their newborns in Reedsburg.

The city’s Safe Haven Baby Box, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, is attached to the Reedsburg Ambulance facility at 230 Railroad St. It features a bassinet and is kept between 72 and 85 degrees. A bag with information about resources for parents in crisis is also available.

The outdoor box door is unlocked until a baby is put inside, after which the exterior door automatically locks and can only be accessed from the inside of Reedsburg Ambulance by an emergency medical staff member.

A beam located under the bassinet in the Safe Haven Baby Box automatically springs the lock once the newborn is placed in the bassinet. An alarm alerting first responders is automatically activated when the exterior door is opened prior to the newborn being placed in the Safe Haven Baby Box. The beam resets itself when the baby is removed by a responder inside Reedsburg Ambulance.

Reedsburg and Sauk County officials said the Safe Haven Baby Box does not necessarily address a need specific to the area, but provides a safe, anonymous manner in which parents can surrender newborns up to three days old for adoption. They said having the choice to remain anonymous can help prevent more unsafe situations involving the abandonment of newborns.

Reedsburg Ambulance director Josh Kowalke and Monica Kelsey, who founded Safe Haven Baby Boxes in 2015 in Woodburn, Indiana, led a “blessing” event on Friday. Reedsburg police Chaplain Benjamin Seamans delivered a prayer welcoming the Safe Haven Baby Box to a community.

Kowalke and Kelsey said the time between when a newborn is dropped off and picked up by a first responder is two minutes.

All 239 Safe Haven Baby Boxes throughout the country are built at emergency medical services facilities, Kelsey said.

“It’s just giving women another option that they didn’t have before, and that is 100% anonymity,” Kelsey said.

Once a newborn is placed in the box, paramedics with Reedsburg Ambulance are notified through a three-alarm system to retrieve the infant. The baby is then taken to Reedsburg Area Medical Center and provided needed care prior to being placed in the state’s adoption and foster system, Kowalke said.

“If a parent feels they cannot care for an infant, this will provide an opportunity for them to privately and anonymously, turn that infant over to someone who can care for them,” Kowalke said regarding the Safe Haven Baby Box .

“Nobody is going to know who they are. It provides that opportunity for the parent to know that their baby is going to be taken to a safe place.”

Kelsey and Kowalke said the Safe Haven Baby Box should be a last resort and advocated for surrendered newborns to be dropped off at a first responder station or hospital in person.

No appointment is necessary to drop a newborn at the Safe Haven Baby Box, and the person who drops off is not required to stay and wait for a first responder to retrieve the child.

The three-alarm system consists of an alarm on the exterior door, a power-off alarm, and a door-lock alarm which automatically locks the box door when the newborn is placed inside, Kelsey said.

“The child has to be retrieved from the inside of the (first responder) location,” Kelsey said.

The power-off alarm sends a signal to emergency medical services to lock the box in case of a power outage or malfunction, she added. The exterior door alarm alerts first responders when a person is accessing the empty box.

None of the alarms are connected, which allows other alarms to continue functioning if one of them is inoperable.

Footage from a camera located inside the Safe Haven Baby Box can be accessed on cell phones belonging to Reedsburg Ambulance personnel. Kelsey explained how this allows responders to promptly access the box if no staff are on site.

Preventing tragedies

Christine Trautman, a Reedsburg Area Medical Center obstetrician/gynecologist who donated money for the Safe Haven Baby Box, said it is “an opportunity for a woman to safely and anonymously share this life with someone else.”

She praised the safety aspects of the box, including the prompt response time, immediate locking upon placement of a newborn, and climate-controlled environment for the infant.

“It seemed like every day, I was reading headlines about unfortunate stories of infant abandonment,” Angie Meise, a public health nurse for the Sauk County Health Department, said at the “blessing” event.

Meise said an incident in which a baby was found dead in a field near Whitewater in March 2023 prompted her to help find a safe alternative for surrendered newborns.

Officials, including Reedsburg city administrator Tim Becker and Sauk County Health Department interim director Jennifer Weitzel, said there is no need for the Safe Haven Baby Box specific to Reedsburg or Sauk County, but it provides a resource for parents to surrender a newborn anonymously and safely.

“I think this is an excellent resource for the community, not just for first responders who may have to respond to a baby that is abandoned, but for that family being able to have that safe place to turn over a baby,” said Reedsburg Police Chief Patrick Cummings.

Weitzel said between 2017 and February of this year, eight newborns were illegally abandoned throughout Wisconsin, and at least one resulted in an infant’s death.

“We want to prevent such tragedies from happening in Sauk County,” Weitzel said.

Becker, whose last day as city administrator was on Friday, said more than $20,000 in donations funded the Safe Haven Baby Box in Reedsburg. Kelsey said Reedsburg officials reached out to Safe Haven Baby Boxes after raising the funds.

“I don’t know that there is like a ‘need’ for it here,” Becker said. “I think it’s something that should probably be available in every city. I would love to have this option and have it never be used.”

He said Safe Haven Baby Boxes should be an option for parents struggling with pregnancy or other circumstances that force them to decide to give up their babies.

The new Safe Haven Baby Box comes after Wisconsin passed a Safe Haven law in December. Newborns up to 72 hours, or three days, old can be surrendered anonymously to law enforcement, a hospital, or emergency medical services personnel without prosecution, according to the law.

The law also states that a parent surrendering a newborn may remain anonymous as long as the infant is unharmed, more than three days old, or if the parent is determined to have been forced to give up the child by another person.

“Unfortunately, this law is not widely known and, in the absence of an alternative, parents in crisis may resort to solutions that endanger the infant’s life,” Weitzel said, adding that a goal of Safe Haven Baby Boxes is to raise awareness about the law.

If parents who surrendered newborns change their minds, they must first contact human services or social services in the county in which they surrendered the baby and take a genetic test to prove the baby is biologically theirs, according to the law.

After paternity is determined, parents must meet with a social worker and provide the reasoning for the surrender, show the social worker their homes, and prove they can sufficiently care for a baby, among other requirements, the law states.

More information on the Safe Haven Law is on the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families website.

Kelsey advocates for parents to be allowed to surrender babies up to 30 days old anonymously, which is legal in Indiana, her home state.

Donors for the Safe Haven Baby Box in Reedsburg include Joshua and Christina Trautman, the Don and Barbara Carrig Community Foundation, Reedsburg Area Medical Center, Friede and Associates, Lycon Inc., and the city of Reedsburg.

Kowalke said that locations in Wisconsin are hoping to get Safe Haven Baby Boxes in the future.

” Wisconsin, you have joined a movement across this country that is saving babies in boxes at fire stations and hospitals in 17 different states now,” Kelsey said.

Other states with Safe Haven Baby Boxes are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. The first Safe Haven Baby Box was built in 2016 in Woodburn, Indiana, Kelsey said.

A retired firefighter and paramedic, Kelsey was inspired to establish Safe Haven Baby Boxes by her own story as a newborn. She said her birth mother was attacked and raped in 1972 and became pregnant with her as a result. After giving birth in April 1973, Kelsey said, her biological mother abandoned her.

“This is my legacy, and I am their voice,” Kelsey said of parents who wish to anonymously surrender their newborns.

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