A Safe Haven

Fort Dodge to have first ‘baby box’ in Iowa

-Messenger photo by Bill Shea
The Health Foundation which supports the Webster County Health Department donated $5,000 Thursday to help pay for the installation of a Safe Haven Baby Box to be installed at the Fort Dodge firehouse, 1515 Central Ave. It will be the first one in the state. On hand for the presentation were, from left, state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge; Webster County Health Department Director Jennifer Sumpter; Gov. Kim Reynolds; state Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge; and Webster County Supervisor Mark Campbell.

In just a few weeks, Fort Dodge will be home to the state of Iowa’s first-ever Safe Haven BabyBox.

The box — a state-of-the-art climate-controlled safety device to place an infant being surrendered under the Safe Haven law — is expected to be installed at the Fort Dodge Fire Department in early to mid-July, according to Randy Kuhlman, CEO of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way.

Iowa first enacted its Safe Haven law in 2002, which allows parents or a party with the parent’s authorization to leave an infant up to 90 days old at a hospital, health care facility or fire station without fear of prosecution for abandonment.

Fort Dodge Fire Chief Steve Hergenreter said he can’t recall an instance in Fort Dodge, but since the Safe Haven law was enacted 21 years ago, 50 infants have been surrendered statewide.

The tragedy of two Fort Dodge parents admitting to drowning their newborn last fall was the catalyst for the push to change Iowa’s law and have a Safe Haven Baby Box installed, Kuhlman said. Ashley Vaala, who was the director of the Lotus Project community women’s shelter, and Fort Dodge City Councilwoman Lydia Schuur sort of kicked off the process and a planning committee was established.

“It was a team process,” Kuhlman said.

The first order of business was to address the current law — up until this year, Iowa’s Safe Haven law did not allow for devices like the Safe Haven Baby Box. In fact, it technically still doesn’t. This spring, the Iowa House and Senate both passed House File 425, which amends the Safe Haven law to include the use of “newborn safety devices” at certain facilities that are staffed 24/7 with first responders, like a fire station. Previously, while parents could still surrender an infant, it was a face-to-face interaction with a first responder or hospital worker. According to the state legislature’s bill tracker, the bill was sent to the governor for her signature on May 9.

Once Gov. Kim Reynolds signs HF425 into law, Iowa will be just the 12th state in the country to allow the boxes in the law, joining Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.

Local legislators Rep. Ann Meyer and Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, who are both Republicans from Fort Dodge, were instrumental in getting the legislation passed this session, Kuhlman said.

Fort Dodge’s Safe Haven Baby Box has been ordered and is expected to be delivered in early July and installed shortly after, Kuhlman said. The Safe Haven Baby Box company is based out of Indiana and assembles the boxes when they are ordered.

“I really think this is going to save some babies’ lives,” Kuhlman said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to do this project and then be the pilot for it for the state of Iowa.”

How does it work?

Inside the box is a medical bassinet. When an individual opens the door to the baby box, a silent alarm and call to 911 dispatch is triggered. A second alarm is triggered by a sensor in a medical bassinet when the infant is placed inside and the exterior door automatically locks. Within minutes, a first responder will remove the infant and transport it to UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center for evaluation. Once the infant is released from the hospital, the Department of Health and Human Services takes custody and begins the adoption process.

“In many cases, it’s the greatest act of love from a mother that just realizes, ‘There’s no way I can care for this baby properly’ and they’re willing to give it up and say, ‘I want to give this baby a chance for a better life,'” Kuhlman said.

When a parent places an infant in the box, there is paperwork they can take with them that gives them more information on what their options are and where they can find support. The National Safe Haven Crisis Hotline, 1-866-99-BABY-1, is staffed 24/7 and is available for any mother in crisis, regardless of if their state or region has a baby box location.

State law does allow either parent of a surrendered infant to petition the court for custody of the child if they change their mind prior to the termination of the parents’ rights. A court hearing would be scheduled to determine if the petitioner is in fact the infant’s biological parent, and if it is in the child’s best interest to be placed in the custody of its parent.

While the concept of a baby box or baby hatch have been around for a while, these boxes are a fairly new technology.

The first infant to be anonymously surrendered via a Safe Haven Baby Box was in Michigan City, Indiana, on Nov. 7, 2017. Since then, 25 infants have been surrendered via a baby box.

The FDFD baby box will be installed in the exterior wall on the northeast side of the fire station, facing Central Avenue. It has very easy access from Central Avenue or the fire station’s east parking lot, and there are no cameras in the area, Hergenreter said, which allows for more anonymity for the parents.

The anonymity removes some barriers for those parents in crisis who might be hesitant to hand their baby over to someone face-to-face, said Assistant City Manager Ryan Maehl.

“That’s a stressful decision one has to make anyway,” he said.

The initial cost of the baby box and installation is normally estimated to be about $25,000, Kuhlman said. However, because local contractors Jensen Builders Ltd. and Baker Electric have offered to donate the materials and labor for the project, that cost has been cut in half.

“That construction project was just done, so we wanted to make sure that the contractor that had built it was the one that was going to do the renovation,” Maehl said. “That generous gift from Baker and Jensen then allows us to focus on some of those other things.”

To ensure its safety, the device is visually inspected daily and the sensors and alarms will be tested weekly. Annually, the manufacturer will conduct a full inspection.

“It’s not just something that you build and forget about,” Maehl said.

With Fort Dodge being the first community in the state to install a Safe Haven Baby Box, others will be looking to follow suit.

“We hope it is a springboard that makes this available in other places,” Maehl said.

Nationwide, there are 134 baby boxes, according to the Safe Haven Baby Boxes website.

Because of the donated materials and labor from the contractors, the initial cost for this baby box will be around $12,000. The Fort Dodge Community Foundation has already cut the check for the box, and it has launched a fundraising campaign to continue to raise funds for the project. In addition to upkeep and an annual licensing fee, the funds will also go toward educating the community about the box and raising awareness.

This project went from conception to action in about six months and was a team process, Kuhlman said.

Other members of the Safe Haven Baby Box planning committee include Jeanette Potter and Julie Piton, of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation; Webster County Emergency Management Coordinator Dylan Hagen; Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad; Sara Carspecken, from the Webster County Health Department; and Leah Glasgo, CEO of UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center.

“It truly is a community effort,” Kuhlman said. “It’s another example of how Fort Dodge, when a good idea pops up and it’s a need in the community, we always rally around it.”


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