FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the medieval ages, mothers would emerge under the cover of night, head to the church, and place their unwanted newborns in turntables embedded in the walls, where, on the other side, a nun would take them.

A version of the practice may soon return in Florida.

A bill passed unanimously in the House and advancing in the Senate would allow fire departments, hospitals, and EMS stations to install high-tech “newborn infant safety devices,” commonly referred to as “baby boxes,” into their walls. The technology, currently in use in a few states, is designed such that parents, particularly mothers, can drop their babies inside and walk away, never interacting with another person.

Florida, like many states across the U.S., currently has a “safe-haven law” in place, where anyone can surrender a newborn at a designated location, no questions asked. But the law does not say anything about leaving the newborns in boxes.

The bills, HB 899 and SB 870 do not specify what device would be used or who would supply it, but nearly all such boxes are manufactured and distributed by one company: Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes, whose founder and CEO, Monica Kelsey, was herself abandoned as an infant.

Baby box legislation was first introduced in 2020, then again in 2021, failing in the Senate both times. This time, it may become law.


The legislation seems innocuous at first glance – what could be less controversial than saving babies’ lives? But some say the baby boxes, advancing in the Legislature at the same time as a proposed six-week abortion ban, are immoral, even dangerous. The bill has received pushback, particularly in South Florida, from Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book. D-Davie, local fire departments, and a potential competitor: A Safe Haven for Newborns, a Miami-based nonprofit that provides most abandoned baby services across the state.

How to use the box

The modern version of a baby box looks like a small oven and comes with a set of instructions and a warning: “Please do not open the door unless you need services.”

The user of the box — most likely, as its proponents intend, a new mother — opens the “access portal door,” places the newborn into a bassinet in the center, closes the door, and locks it. Unless she claims custody before the court terminates her parental rights, the child is no longer hers.

Meanwhile, as soon as the baby is placed in the box, an alarm goes off inside the fire station or hospital, which must be staffed 24 hours a day. The box is temperature-controlled and comes with a dual alarm system and a surveillance system that lets employees monitor the inside. The closest first responder is immediately dispatched to retrieve the newborn from the box and take it to the hospital.

If the mother has questions, she can call the number listed on the box, 1-866-99BABY1. The counselor hired by Safe Haven Baby Boxes to answer hotline calls is Pam Stenzel, a licensed counselor, crisis pregnancy center operator, and lecturer who promotes abstinence-only sex education.


A single baby box is currently operating in Florida, in Ocala, where a fire station had one installed two years ago, before state legislation. In January, two years after it was built, a baby was surrendered to the box.

An alternative to abortion?

For the anti-abortion contingent, safe-haven laws present an alternative to the burden of forced motherhood in a world where abortion is no longer an option.

At the hearing for the case that overturned Roe v. Wade, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said, “Both Roe and Casey emphasized the burdens of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the haven laws take care of that problem?”

The Florida Senate passed a six-week abortion ban on Monday, and the House is expected to take up its version of the bill soon. Some say the timing of the baby box legislation is no coincidence.

“We’re seeing a gigantic movement right now of pro-life policy, Christian majority stuff coming out of our Legislature and I think this is a piece and a part of that,” Book told the Sun Sentinel.


To some, the baby box bill furthers that movement.

“If your legislative plan is not to fund contraception, and to ban abortion after six weeks, then a high-tech box goes right with it,” said Michelle Oberman, a professor at the Santa Clara University law school who studies the ethical issues surrounding motherhood. “A high-tech box is a piece, a system in which you view a win-win outcome as you’ve got more adoptable babies.”

Most of the people who run safe-haven organizations and work their hotlines have anti-abortion beliefs. Nick Silverio, the founder of A Safe Haven for Newborns, said he and most of his volunteers are anti-abortion, but that typically doesn’t affect the work they do.

“Women don’t call us if they’re thinking of having an abortion,” he said.

Monica Kelsey, the self-proclaimed “baby box lady,” has a more explicit anti-abortion stance.

“Today Monica is standing on the front lines defending the innocent children that are targeted for abortion and abandonment,” a biography on her website reads. The site describes exceptions for incest or rape as “misplaced compassion.”


But Kelsey maintained that her organization’s work is separate from her personal beliefs.

“Me being pro-life or pro-choice or having a stance has nothing to do with an organization keeping babies out of dumpsters,” she told the Sun Sentinel.

At Senate committee hearings about the legislation, Andrew Shirvell, the founder of Florida Voice for the Unborn, voiced his support, describing the box as a “state-of-the-art device.” He said 120 babies have been surrendered in boxes in the past seven years.

Despite its association with anti-abortion views, the safe-haven movement has achieved support among Democrats and Republicans.

“It grew out of a grassroots, pro-life, how do we save babies impulse,” Oberman said. “But it’s been bipartisan.”

Within the Legislature, supporters of the bill include Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the abortion debate, who say that it simply offers another option to help mothers and save their baby’s lives.


“These devices could be built at any of these locations and might never be used,” Sen. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said during a committee hearing. “Might never be used, and that’s okay … but I like the thought of there being an option.”

Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, the former Parkland mayor, co-introduced the bill in the House but vehemently disagreed with the notion that it would preclude the need for abortions.

“Bad policy is bad policy,” she said. “Putting other good policy in place doesn’t make up for a policy that limits people’s choices to make decisions about their families, themselves, their bodies, and their health care.”

Safe Haven vs. Safe Haven

Safe Haven Baby Boxes has found a foothold in multiple states, including Indiana and Ohio. But in Florida, the organization has chafed against Silverio’s nonprofit, A Safe Haven for Newborns, which already provides abandoned baby services throughout the state.

Both organizations offer hotlines for mothers thinking of abandoning their babies. Both advertise themselves, their services, and phone numbers in signage at safe-haven locations like fire departments and hospitals. But A Safe Haven for Newborns believes in direct hand-offs, not boxes.


The two nonprofits are not on speaking terms, said Silverio. If the law passes and local governments begin installing baby boxes, he will not work with Kelsey.

“There’s no reason for us to work together; we do two separate things,” he said. “We don’t function with people like that, and it’s not personal … the best experience that can be had is a direct surrender.”

Kelsey accused A Safe Haven for Newborns of creating opposition to the baby-box legislation because of concerns over funding, not babies.

A Safe Haven for Newborns’ funding comes from the Florida Department of Health, Silverio said, the rest from wealthy donors. According to a recent tax form, the organization received about three-quarters of its funding, or $300,000, in government grants, and a little over $100,000 in fundraising revenue.

Silverio said that the money is not his concern, describing it as an “enhancement.”

“If the funding ceases to exist, our organization continues, and we will continue to do what we’re doing,” he said.


The argument has continued onto TikTok, where an account called “concernedforflorida” has posted several videos of firefighters criticizing baby boxes while using the Safe Haven for Newborns logo.

Silverio said his organization has nothing to do with the account, but that it’s “probably a supporter.”

“I’ve looked at the content because I’ve heard about it,” he said. “It appears all that information is factual; it’s not like it’s made up.”

The book said she had worked with A Safe Haven for Newborns this session and in the past, but maintained that her opposition to the bill was genuine.

“To me, it is less about who gets what ownership in terms of what the safe-haven law does now,” she said. “My issue is, the laws that we have on the books work.”

Babies or bombs?


Critics have raised several concerns about the boxes specifically, ranging from security risks for first responders to the mothers’ well-being.

The top three issues for A Safe Haven for Newborns are security, liability, and the lack of communication between first responders and the mother, Silverio said.

As an “entry point” in an otherwise secure building, a baby box presents a security risk, said Joel Gordon, deputy chief of the Plantation Fire Department and a member of A Safe Haven for Newborns’ advisory board.

“It’s a box,” Silverio said. “Somebody could go there and put anything in that box. It could be a bomb. It could be. In this day and age with what’s happening around the world and the U.S., it’s a possibility.”

While the technology has worked successfully in a handful of surrenders so far, the boxes are also not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. And if something were to happen to the baby, the liability would fall on the fire department or hospital, not the manufacturer, Silverio said.

In a Senate committee hearing, Book presented multiple amendments that A Safe Haven for Newborns had suggested to address the security and liability concerns. All of them failed.


The anonymity the box promotes also means there is no way to confirm if the baby was left there by its mother, or, if it was, whether she was coerced somehow, possibly even a trafficking victim, Oberman said.

Kelsey argued that existing safe-haven laws do not prevent this either. Anyone can walk in, hand over a baby, and walk out without saying anything, she said.

But they can also talk to first responders if they want to, something the box does not afford.

“You can ask questions in the safe-haven program … now,” Silverio said. “Mom doesn’t have to respond, but she has the opportunity to do that.”

Kelsey said that anonymity is important in situations where the mother doesn’t want to talk to anyone.

“I’m giving anonymity to these parents that don’t want to be seen,” she said.


Oberman thinks there is a certain “moral cynicism” to the function of a high-tech baby box. She fears that the box would be presented to vulnerable mothers, most likely poor minority women, as a quick fix for their struggles, then take their children away for good.

Many of the women who contemplate abandoning their babies are in a state of crisis, she said. After receiving support, about a third of women end up choosing to keep their babies rather than surrender them.

Should a mother surrender her newborn and regret her decision, she will have to claim the baby before a court enters a judgment terminating her parental rights, either before the court or with the “entity having physical or legal custody of the newborn infant,” according to the bill.

The story of a medieval woman giving her baby to a nun in the dark of night is the “cheeriest, rosiest version” of what is happening now, Oberman said.

“The fantasy there is one where a woman is so ashamed, we can’t figure out anything to do with her,” she said. “We understood her shame as being structural. We understood it as being our fault.”

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