KEVIN LEININGER: A young life spared is reason for Thanksgiving for program creator

Monica Kelsey helped install Indiana's first "baby box" at the Woodburn fire station last year, and the second box in Michigan City just saved a life. (AP photo)
Dave Bahr won't do any time behind bars for opening Ted Popplewell's scalp with a clothes iron. (Courtesy photo)
David Bahr

Abandoned as an infant by her mother who had been raped, Woodburn firefighter Monica Kelsey doesn’t have to look far to find a reason to give thanks for her 47 years on earth. But now she has one more: the life of a baby girl saved by a program Kelsey has championed for the past several years, often in the face of opposition from state child-welfare officials.

“I give thanks that mother trusted me enough to do this,” said Kelsey, whose Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc. last year installed electronically monitored receptacles at fire stations in Woodburn and Michigan city that allow newborns to be left safely — an option that was used for the first time in Michigan City Nov. 7

The girl is reportedly in foster care and doing fine, but Kelsey’s joy over a young life spared is tempered by her annoyance that some state officials continue to undermine a program she insists has the potential to save even more babies, especially now that the first successful use of her baby box has generated even more interest in Indiana and even nationwide.

Kelsey said that, contrary to statements by some child-protection officials, the Michigan City box worked precisely as she designed it: “The alarm was tripped, and firefighters responded within four minutes. Why (officials) are still arguing is beyond me. It’s sad, and they’ve done nothing to educate the public (about the program).”

Signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in May, Indiana’s “safe haven” law allows newborns up to 30 days old to be surrendered without question at a police station, hospital or fire station. Previously, babies had to be given directly to a representative at one of those locations, but the bill also allows installation of baby safes and “grandfathered” the two boxes that had already been installed, which Kelsey insists never violated the law.

Why would Indiana officials supposedly concerned with the welfare of endangered children oppose baby safes? As Indiana State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams explained last year, “there were no specifications or functional requirements that could be created that would ensure the safety and security of children.”

Perhaps that’s true. The boxes are heated and include back-up monitors and alarms, but no technology is foolproof. On the other hand, none of the alternatives is foolproof, either. In 2015, Kelsey said, about 103 infants were abandoned at “safe haven” sites nationwide, including 15 being left without direct human contact.

Is it really better to leave babies on some proverbial doorstep than it is to leave them in a shelter designed to keep them warm and safe until help arrives? Those 15 infants indicate Kelsey is right when she suggests that, just as some women cross state lines for abortions in order to remain anonymous, some young mothers want their identities to remain unknown when they give up their babies. Baby boxes achieve that purpose.

Kelsey said two more boxes will soon be installed in northwest Indiana, and that she’s been inundated with inquiries following the Michigan City rescue. It would be nice if the Fort Wayne Fire Department could make room for a box at one of its stations; it’s a long drive to Woodburn.

The criticism may have had at least one benefit, however: It’s compelled Kelsey to improve the boxes’ design, but also increased the cost from $2,000 to about $5,000 — a cost the Knights of Columbus have said they’re willing to underwrite. And in case you’re wondering, Kelsey gains no profit from the operation: only the gratitude that comes with the knowledge she may have just saved a life that began very much like her own, and may be blessed to do so again.

Thanksgiving turkey?

Last June, David Bahr broke into an apartment occupied by his former girlfriend, Kayla Sutphin, and beat her new boyfriend over the head with a four-pound clothes iron so severely the appliance broke and Ted Popplewell was rushed to the hospital to staple together his bloodied scalp. Bahr, however, was released on bond because a previous protection order against him filed by Sutphin, who was pregnant with Popplewell’s child at the time, had never been delivered.

Hoping to avoid another confrontation, the couple moved. And as I wrote in September, some family members thought the justice system had not done enough to protect the young couple. That feeling was amplified this month when Bahr pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years — with two of those years suspended and the rest on work release.

“We are all extremely disappointed, to put it politely,” said Popplewell’s mother, Patti Quintano. “(Bahr) can jump ship any time and be at Ted and Kayla’s in just 10 minutes. No one in the justice system seems to be impressed at all with this guy’s history, the escalation of their interactions, or the violence.”

This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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