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Sylva considers Safe Haven Boxes

Safe Haven Baby Boxes allow for the anonymous surrender of an infant. Safe Haven photo Safe Haven Baby Boxes allow for the anonymous surrender of an infant. Safe Haven photo

The Sylva Board of Commissioners recently received a presentation on Safe Haven Boxes — a program that allows for the anonymous surrender of infants.

The presentation was purely informational, and more research is needed before commissioners will make a decision about the program. 

“When you have women in crisis, whether it’s from something physical, financial, emotional, that desire to remain anonymous and safely surrender their child is just more prevalent,” said Rachel Huffman, health advocate and emergency medication specialist. “I’d like to see that become an option for our community and I’d like us to be able to set that standard.” 

In order to surrender a baby in North Carolina, someone must present themselves to law enforcement or other emergency medical personnel. Once they do so, a lengthy process is set in motion in which that person and the infant are taken to a hospital and social services becomes involved.

“People can shy away from that because they fear being prosecuted,” said Huffman. “You’re talking about women who are typically on the younger side, who are in mental health crisis. This puts the focus on the baby and getting that baby somewhere safe.”

Safe Haven Boxes, provided by an organization of the same name, can be installed outside government or medical buildings that are manned 24 hours a day, such as Sheriff’s offices, police departments, fire stations or emergency rooms. Someone can come and leave a baby in the box anonymously. Once the baby is in the box, an alarm will sound after two minutes which notifies emergency personnel. Within 30 minutes, the baby is taken to an emergency room for a full physical. Inside the box there is a packet of information and resources available to the person surrendering the child. There are also security cameras in the box and outside the box in case a crime occurs, or the child being surrendered is deceased. The infant must be within seven days of birth to be surrendered.

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“As a part of my position with HCA [Hospital Corporation of America] and with my volunteering with Safe Haven, I would also be listed as an emergency contact inside the box to take a mother anonymously to an emergency room should she need it,” said Huffman.

After the surrendered infant has been medically cared for, they are immediately put in the care of Health and Human Services to be placed in foster care. Alternatively, Safe Haven also has a list of people signed up with the organization for private adoptions.

“A lot of these women crave to remain anonymous after sexual assault,” said Huffman.

According to information provided by Safe Haven Boxes, there are 165 active baby boxes in the United States, and over 100 babies have been safely surrendered through the organization. Ashe County is the only North Carolina County that currently has a Safe Haven Box, located at its Sheriff’s Department. The closest Safe Haven Box is located in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“If we were able to make this a reality, we would be the second box in North Carolina,” said Commissioner Natalie Newman, the official responsible for organizing the presentation from Huffman.

Because North Carolina law requires infants to be surrendered to law enforcement or emergency personnel, Sylva would have to pass an ordinance that would allow for the placement of a Safe Haven Box and anonymous surrender.

In addition to the baby boxes, Safe Haven also provides a hotline for women in crisis, which is available on the organization’s website, and is also posted on all Safe Haven boxes. 

“Having a Safe Haven Box results in more people calling the crisis line that’s associated with it,” said Huffman.

Cost for the box is typically $11,000 to $16,000 depending on its location. The Safe Haven organization pays for those installation costs.

“We’re having trouble keeping sexual assault survivors in the area for healthcare, and with that becomes even more of a stigma and people become afraid to present themselves,” said Huffman. “A lot of people aren’t educated about safe haven laws, they don’t understand, they just fear prosecution around those and even having a box present allows the opportunity to educate the community. The maternal vulnerability score for Western North Carolina for poor pregnancy outcomes are very high.” 

Mayor David Nestler urged board members to do further research before moving to adopt an ordinance and install a box.

“I think these boxes are very well intentioned, but I do have some concerns about them,” said Nestler. “Currently, North Carolina law gives you the option of surrendering a child to certain law enforcement, emergency personnel, but it’s always to a person.” 

That’s important, Nestler said, because sometimes people don’t know that they are terminating parental rights when placing a baby in a Safe Haven Box. On the other hand, emergency personnel are trained to relate that information to people surrendering an infant in person.

“Also, a public health official can guarantee that the woman is not surrendering her child through coercion, which is another problem,” said Nester. “I think that’s the reason North Carolina law is written that way and I think the reason you need an ordinance for this is to somehow circumvent that requirement or force the state into changing that requirement.” 

Nestler also pointed out that the Safe Haven hotline does not get very good marks from public health officials.

“Those are all valid concerns,” said Huffman. “I think we live in a changing society. Some of our state laws don’t necessarily meet the needs of that changing and younger society and the challenges they’re going to face and the way they may maneuver socially.” 

“If you all want to move forward with this, I’d make sure that Eric [Ridenour, board attorney] researched those legal questions quite thoroughly and that you consider too the opinions from other public health officials on these boxes.” 

The board will revisit the issue after conducting further research on the legal side, as well as communicating with the health department to its input.

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