The El Dorado City Council has given its stamp of approval for two local organizations to raise money for and institute an anonymous, infant drop-off system in the city.
On April 22, council members heard from Paula Williams, executive director of Hannah Pregnancy Resource Center, and Bruce Butterfield, of the Knights of Columbus - Holy Redeemer Catholic Church council, about the purpose and function of Safe Haven baby boxes, which allow parents to safely surrender infants.
Williams explained that the nonprofit HPRC provides services and assistance to women and their families who are facing an unplanned pregnancy.
She said the nonprofit group recently met with Council Member Paul Choate and Fire Chief Chad Mosby about a proposed project to initiate a baby box system in El Dorado.
Per Arkansas’s Safe Haven Law, a parent may bring a child who is 30 days old or younger to employees of any hospital emergency room, law enforcement agency or fire department that is staffed 24 hours a day.
Parents may also anonymously place a child in a designated newborn safety device, or “baby box”, location without questions or the risk of arrest and criminal charges for endangering or abandoning a child.
Baby boxes are installed in an exterior wall of a designated agency and the child may be removed from the box by a staff member inside the building.
In the meeting with Mosby and Choate, Williams said the group homed in on El Dorado Fire Station 2, 1400 E. Hillsboro, as a practical location to install the city’s first baby box.
“We feel that that would give more privacy and it would also give access to (U.S.) 167 for anybody that may be interested in using the box,” Williams told council members.
She said the program would be an asset to El Dorado and south Arkansas, noting there are no baby boxes in the southern part of the state.
“Everything is Little Rock and above so this is going to be something that is unique to our county and to our area so we’re very excited about that …,” Williams continued.
She explained that when someone opens the box on the exterior of the building, a silent alarm sends a signal to 911 dispatchers.
A second alarm is activated when an infant is placed inside a bassinet in the box and a third alarm goes to dispatchers once the box is closed from the outside.
The baby box cannot be reopened from the outside once it is closed, Williams said.
“So all of those alarms are going off so the fire department and police department are all notified that something is going on there at the box and the fire department can retrieve the baby from the box, evaluate what needs to be done and take the baby to the hospital,” she continued.
In Arkansas, the Arkansas Department of Human Services is called when a baby is surrendered in such a manner and the department works to ensure that the baby is permanently placed in a loving home.
The cost of the box is $10,000, and Williams said the HPRC is able to contribute $3,500 it received as a part of a grant from Arkansas Right to Life toward the purchase of the box.
She also said two anonymous donors have committed an additional $1,000 each.
To mitigate installation costs, Williams said HPRC has reached out to a contractor who may do the work free of charge.
Other costs include transportation — Williams said the box will come from Indiana —, a one-time $500 registration fee, an annual service fee of $300 for monitoring, an annual $200 recertification fee and applicable permits to install the box.
Williams said the HPRC can use a portion of grant funds to cover the costs of the registration, service and recertification fees.
The only cost to the city would be electricity to power the box, she said.
“I think this is an amazing opportunity … Some of you may be wondering why is it necessary to install a box here,” Williams told council members.
“What if it’s never used? And that may be the case, but what if we never had a box and someone needed it and we could have saved the life of a child; so it’s something that you can consider, please,” she said.
Butterfield said the state chapter of Knights of Columbus — a global service, financial and charitable organization that supports and promotes the Catholic faith — has taken on Safe Haven Baby Box projects in cities throughout Arkansas.
The KOC has purchased baby boxes in Benton and Rogers.
He also said baby boxes are under evaluation and are expected to be dedicated soon in Springdale and Jonesboro and another box is being evaluated but has not yet been installed in Conway.
“The role of the Knights of Columbus is we’re just going to raise money,” Butterfield said.
He said the group was awaiting the council’s approval before launching a fundraising campaign for the proposed baby box project in El Dorado because the box will be installed on city property.
“I didn’t want to raise funds and then have to return them, but the Knights have committed to raising whatever funds are necessary to get this accomplished,” he said.
He said the group is also looking into launching a promotional campaign to ensure the public is aware the baby box will be available in El Dorado, adding that plans for the campaign have not been finalized.
“We also understand that this box is pretty useless if people don’t know about it … It is important to make sure that people know that it’s there so it can be utilized,” Butterfield said.
“We hope it’s never used, but if there’s a need, we want it to be there and we want people to know where it’s at,” he continued. “Paula’s (Williams) already got a good start on the funds so we’re committed to raising the rest of the funds that we need to.”
Council Member Andre Rucks inquired about the dimensions of the baby box and Butterfield said the box appears to be “about a 2 1/2- to 3-foot square box” that is climate-controlled.
“The one in Benton was installed in 2019 and in May of 2020, it saved a baby, so it was important that it happened,” Butterfield said.
In a letter that was sent to city officials in support of the proposal to install a baby box in El Dorado, Benton Fire Chief Bill Ford wrote that a six-pound baby boy, who was less than a day old, was left inside the baby box in Benton on May 24, 2020.
Ford also wrote that construction of the city’s sixth fire station is expected to begin soon and a baby box will also be installed in the new station.
Council members also received some push-back on the proposed project from a Massachusetts man, who vehemently expressed his opposition in several emails that were sent to city officials Thursday, calling baby boxes “a scam” and “illegal.”
In 2017, the man, Michael Morrisey, and his wife Jean, were ordered to pay $25,000 in damages in a lawsuit that was filed by Monica J. Kelsey, founder Baby Safe Haven Inc., which assists with the installation of “alarmed, warmed and padded containers in which a person can anonymously place an infant and be assured of its receiving prompt care.”
According to The Journal Gazette newspaper in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Kelsey took legal action against the couple in January of 2017, alleging that they had persistently harassed her, causing her “stress and anxiety and to ‘live in fear.’”
Ford wrote that city officials in Benton also reported Morrisey to police for harassment when the baby box project was initiated there.
During the city council meeting on April 22, Council Member Dianne Hammond contacted state Sen. Trent Garner (R) by phone and Garner spoke in favor of the baby boxes, saying that he fully supports implementing the program in El Dorado.