St. Rita’s ‘baby box’ provides safe haven for abandoned infants

LIMA — Outside the emergency department at Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center is a non-descript incubator where parents can safely surrender their infants for adoption, a rare but legal option for parents in crisis who may otherwise abandon an infant in the earliest days of the child’s life.

The incubator, which looks like a drop-box embedded into the emergency department, automatically locks and triggers a silent alarm anytime a child is placed in the small bassinet inside, allowing hospital staff to quickly retrieve the child.

St. Rita’s has accepted infant surrenders since Ohio’s Safe Haven law took effect in 2002.

But the new incubator, otherwise known as a baby box, makes it easier for parents to leave an infant with the hospital anonymously.

“It’s for any moms in crisis who don’t know where to turn and don’t feel like they can appropriately care for that infant,” said Sarah Bassit, a St. Rita’s nurse whose research led St. Rita’s to install the incubator outside its emergency department.

Under Ohio’s Safe Haven law, birth parents may leave an infant with any hospital worker, first responder or law enforcement officer within 30 days of the child’s birth without fear of prosecution.

But the 2002 law, intended to prevent infant deaths, is rarely used.

Allen County’s first and only Safe Haven case occurred in 2016 when firefighters found a baby girl in a box left outside the Delphos Fire Department.

While the girl survived, hospitals like Van Wert Health and St. Rita’s have since installed Safe Haven incubators to make the process safer for those who wish to surrender a child anonymously.

Allen County Children Services takes temporary emergency custody anytime a child is surrendered.

The agency first contacts law enforcement to ensure the child hasn’t been reported missing, then finds a licensed foster-to-adopt home for the child, according to Sarah Newland, executive director for Children Services.

It can take 90 days for Allen County Juvenile Court to terminate the surrendering parent’s parental rights, while the entire process from initial placement to finding an adoptive family for the child can take six months to a year to complete, according to Newland.

St. Rita’s worked with Safe Haven Baby Boxes, an Indiana non-profit group founded by a woman who was abandoned as an infant, to bring the incubator to Lima.

The group claims 21 infants have been surrendered through its incubators since 2017.

“We are reducing the chances that a mother in crisis will make a life-altering decision that could lead to the death of an infant,” Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes, said in a press release last week. “Instead, we are seeing mothers bravely and lovingly surrender their infants when the feel they have no other choice, and these children are loved by adoptive families quickly.

“That is an incredible change in the narrative of these tough situations,” Kelsey said. “It is a joy to be in Lima and add them to communities prepared to serve the vulnerable.”