'Baby box' bills head to the governor's desk for approval

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
An infant rests inside a “baby box” installed in Indiana in a photo posted to the Safe Haven Baby Boxes Facebook page in November. Michigan lawmakers are considering bills that would allow mothers to surrender their children inside baby boxes installed at hospital, fire stations and police department.

Lansing — Legislation allowing Michigan hospitals, and police and fire departments to install “baby boxes” at their facilities is headed to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk after receiving final approval from the House on Thursday.

The “newborn safety device,” where a parent can safely surrender an infant, would lock from the outside after an infant is placed inside, trigger a call to 911 within 30 seconds and include instructions about its use.

The legislation is an expansion of the state’s 2000 safe haven law, which allows parents to leave their baby with an employee at a hospital, police or fire station if that baby is younger than 72 hours old, said Rep. Bronna Kahle, the legislation’s sponsor. The infant later is put up for adoption. The bill extends the law to apply to infants up to 30 days old.

The extension of the current law adds a layer of anonymity to the process for parents, who may be afraid of face-to-face contact while surrendering their child.

“This just adds that extra layer of success,” said Kahle, an Adrian Republican. “It’s a win for everyone. It’s a win for the mom and a win for the child.”

The Senate approved the main bill in a 30-8 vote Tuesday after adopting an amendment to hold a manufacturer liable for any injury or death resulting from use of the device. The House concurred on those changes Thursday in a 98-9 vote. 

The nonprofits behind the baby boxes would pay for manufacturing, installation and maintenance of the boxes. 

More than 200 newborns have been surrendered in Michigan through the state’s safe delivery program since 2001, primarily at hospitals at the time of birth, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which would be responsible for developing safety guidelines for the boxes.

The Health and Human Services Department has no official position on the legislation but expressed concerns early in the legislative process that included the possibility of the box malfunctioning.

Indiana's health and human services department initially opposed the idea of baby boxes, but the initiative has worked there, Kahle said.

The legislation leaves the development of guidelines and oversight up to the department, so the rules “can be to their desire and their specifications,” she said.

Baby boxes installed in Indiana included a bassinet inside the box, heating and cooling features and health information for the mother. Two alarms are sent to 911 when the box is opened and closed for prompt retrieval of the child.

While current law requires emergency services providers to supply parents with information on their parental rights and give them the opportunity to sign a release terminating those rights, parents leaving their child in a baby box instead have the option of leaving their phone number at the drop-off location.

The addition of baby boxes to the safe haven law "while well intended, is misguided," said Dawn Geras, president of Chicago-based Save Abandoned Babies, a group that helped to implement safe-haven policies in Illinois.

The boxes remove the chance for the mother to receive medical care, would create confusion about which safe havens offer boxes and which don't, and remove the chance to explain parental rights, Geras said.

Geras said she wants to do all she can to save infants at risk of abandonment, but opposed the legislation because of "all of the potential pitfalls and dangers and confusion regarding what already does exist."


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