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Lansing — Michigan hospitals and police and fire departments would be allowed to install “baby boxes” where a mother could safely surrender her newborn under legislation discussed at the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee Thursday.

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

The bills expand on legislation approved in 2000 that allows parents to anonymously surrender a newborn to an emergency services provider within 72 hours of a child’s birth without being accused of abandonment. The child is later placed with a family through adoption.

“This legislation takes the necessary steps to ensure that no mother feels that she has to abandon her child illegally,” said Rep. Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian, one of the lawmakers who introduced the bills.

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.

The introduced bills would expand the timeframe in which a mother could surrender an infant to within 30 days of birth and require the DHHS to develop guidelines as to safety requirements for the baby boxes.

Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania already have provisions for the devices, Kahle said. She said installation of the boxes would be optional.

“If it saves even one life, it’s worth it,” Kahle said.

Monica Kelsey, founder of Safe Haven Baby Boxes, said boxes the group installed in Indiana include a bassinet inside the box, heating and cooling features, and health information for the mother.

Kelsey, a firefighter and paramedic who herself was abandoned as an infant, said the boxes include two alarms that call 911 when the box is opened and when the box is closed with a child inside. Kelsey said the boxes lock from the outside after the baby is left there and can only be accessed from inside the department or hospital.

The boxes, which include 12, 1½-inch diameter ventilation holes on the interior door, are leased to facilities so that Safe Haven can swap them out if or when newer models are developed. Kelsey said departments and hospitals pay an upfront cost to the nonprofit, then an annual $100 fee for engineering recertifications.

She said facilities with baby boxes have policies that require the baby is retrieved within five minutes, and that the box is regularly checked and tested.

Kelsey told lawmakers of four infant abandonment cases in Michigan last year, including one where an infant was left in a visitor’s vehicle outside a Grand Rapids hospital.

“One of the main arguments is: Are we making it too easy for women to just abandon their responsibility?” Kelsey said. “My answer to that is who are we protecting, the child or the mom?”

Dawn Shanafelt, manager for the MDHHS perinatal and infant health section, expressed concern at the hearing regarding the limited research available on the safety of such devices, the potential for someone who surrenders an infant without the knowledge of the mother and the lack of medical information on the infant or mother. Safety protocols outlined in the bill may not be enough, she said.

“I believe that those protocols are a place to start, but I’m concerned about monitoring those provisions once they’re put in place,” Shanafelt said.

Kahle said she plans to meet with DHHS to address some of the agency’s concerns, but said a key provision to the current law is anonymity for the mother.

“Part of the point is so that there is no stigma for the mother,” Kahle said.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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