The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 26, 2021 1:00 am

'Baby Box Lady' tells story

Safe Haven's founder writes, publishes book

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Monica Kelsey has been on the road for almost two days.

It's a Tuesday in mid-August and she is on her way back from Jeffersonville to her home in Woodburn. Kelsey made the more than four-hour drive to take part in the blessing of a baby box that had been installed at the fire station.

The long drives and long hours have become part of her life for the last eight years as she continues her work with Safe Haven Baby Boxes, the organization she founded, to help mothers find a safe way to surrender their baby.

Helping abandoned babies is personal for Kelsey, who she herself was abandoned by her mother at a hospital in 1973. Kelsey was able to meet her biological mother in 2011, which prompted her to start writing a book about her life.

“I just never knew where the story ended,” Kelsey says of her abandonment.

The book includes not only Kelsey's story, but also the story of her organization and what it took to get to where it is today.

Kelsey has faced criticism, setbacks and successes since she first introduced the idea of a baby box in Indiana. And during that time she continued to write.

Kelsey says she knew when the time was right, “I would release (the book).”

The self-published book, “Blessed to Have Been Abandoned: The Story of The Baby Box Lady,” came out in May.

Releasing the book “was a rough thing for me,” Kelsey says, as “it's available for people to criticize.”

But since it's release, Kelsey has heard from many people about how it has inspired them and tells a good story – a story that could have easily turned from bad to worse after her mother left her at that hospital.

“I do think that every thing in my life is exactly how it was supposed to be,” Kelsey says. “This wasn't easy for me to accept. When you take pain, and you take your story and you put those two together, your purpose comes out.”

'This would work'

The Jeffersonville baby box marked the 77th one that Safe Haven Baby Boxes has helped install in Indiana. And that number keeps growing.

Kelsey has only missed two baby box blessings and that was because her father passed away last year from cancer.

The boxes, which are incubators, have a door to the outside of a fire station building or hospital and allow a person to place the baby inside safely. When opened, an alarm sounds to alert on-duty staff, nearby volunteers or emergency dispatchers. The boxes are climate-controlled, containing warming and cooling features, and lock after use. 

So far 12 babies have been surrendered in the boxes since the first one was installed in Woodburn in 2016. Other boxes are located in Ohio, Kentucky, Arkansas and Florida.

Safe Haven Baby Boxes' mission is to prevent illegal abandonment of newborns, Kelsey says. And it appears to have worked as Kelsey says abandonment is down and there hasn't been a dead abandoned baby in Indiana since 2015.

“I knew this would work. I studied it,” Kelsey says. “I knew these babies were being abandoned outside these locations.”

In addition to the babies that were surrendered in the incubators, the organization has had 100 women surrender their child by hand off to a counselor or another emergency official.

Kelsey says based on the phone calls from women, she knew “we were doing the right thing.” There is a 24-hour hotline that mothers can call and the number is listed on the boxes. Kelsey says mothers often call before a surrender or while they are at the box. The boxes are considered a last resort for women.

But they weren't always met with positive reviews.

The idea of a baby box had never been done before in Indiana. Because of that, Kelsey was hit with a lot of criticism. It was hurtful, she says.

Early on, the boxes received opposition of then-Gov. Mike Pence, as well as members of the Indiana Department of Child Services. But Kelsey, as well as Indiana lawmakers, kept pushing to legalize the baby boxes as an option to Indiana's Safe Haven law. The state legislature approved the installation of baby boxes for hospitals in 2017 and later fire stations in 2018. The Woodburn box was grandfathered in.

Under Indiana law, a person can give up an infant anonymously without fear of arrest or prosecution at police stations, fire stations and hospitals. The law was passed in response to newborns being abandoned illegally and many found dead in dumpsters, restrooms and woods. But even with the law, babies were still being abandoned illegally.

“I knew this wasn't going to be an easy battle,” Kelsey says. “I knew Christ knew who he had to be at the forefront of the battle.”

Kelsey says she tried to take the critics and criticism and turn it into something positive.

She writes about those fights and successes in the book.

“The fight was definitely worth it,” Kelsey says. “I would do it again.”

'Refused to quit'

Kelsey actually took a step back from her baby box work in 2015 because of personal issues. A family tragedy a month later required her to stop altogether for three years after the first baby box was put in. However, in 2018 she pushed on again.

“Monica is a bulldog,” says Pam Stenzel, who is chairman of the Safe Haven Baby Boxes board. “She's endured a lot ... . Most people would have said forget it. And she absolutely refused to quit.”

Stenzel has worked with Kelsey on the baby boxes since the beginning, which happened to be on a flight back home from Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013. Both women were on a speaking tour in South Africa and Kelsey noticed a box on the side of the wall of a Cape Town church where infants could be surrendered. The city had seen so many infants abandoned and who died that the pastor said no more, and installed the box, Stenzel says.

Kelsey wondered why the U.S. didn't have something similar. So she drew her version of a baby box on an airline napkin on the plane ride home.

Stenzel is one of the counselors who speak to the women who call the hotline. She says most often the real calls come in at 2 a.m. in the morning.

Stenzel, who has a degree in psychology and marriage and family therapy and works with pregnancy health centers in Tampa, Florida, says the crisis of abandoned babies is happening across the country. Kelsey has worked to educate not only those in Indiana, but across the country of the safe haven law, Stenzel says.

“People have to know that they have this safe haven option,” Stenzel says.

Telling stories

Kelsey was adopted and grew up in Paulding County, Ohio. She writes in her book that her parents shared with her what they were told about her biological parents: They were young and in love, but just couldn't take care of her.

The story was anything but the truth.

When Kelsey tracked down her biological mother, she says it was both the best and worst day.

That's when the 48-year-old found out her birth stemmed from rape. Her mother was 17.

“I felt so bad for her,” Kelsey says. “I didn't realize she was telling me her story, but also my story.”

Kelsey spent three years getting to know her mother before she passed away at 57 years old. “I don't blame her at all for anything,” Kelsey says.

It's not lost on Kelsey that when she was abandoned there was no safe haven law, so it was illegal for her mother to leave Kelsey at the hospital. Today it wouldn't be.

Kelsey was the only one in her family that joined the military and eventually began her career as a volunteer firefighter and medic. She retired in 2019 from the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority so she could work on the organization full time.

Her work has garnered her the title as “baby box lady,” and often that is how she is recognized.

But Kelsey is OK with that moniker, including it in the title of her new book.

She knows it's because of her work that babies are being saved and she is helping to make families while helping mothers make different choices.

“I relate to the child, (I) met my mom, I have empathy for the women,” Kelsey says. “I owe it to these babies to keep doing what I'm doing.”

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