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Southern New Mexico city to install safe haven ‘baby box’

HOBBS, N.M. – Hobbs city commissioners took a step toward saving the lives of unwanted newborns at a recent meeting by voting to install a baby box in the southeastern New Mexico community.

The vote was spurred by the case of Alexis Avila, who was caught on surveillance camera in early January throwing her infant – who was tied in a plastic bag – into a dumpster behind a retail shopping mall in near freezing weather. Dumpster divers found the newborn – six hours later, and still alive.

Because of the incident, commissioners approved a resolution in support of installing a surrender safety device at Hobbs Fire Station 1, otherwise known as the “Safe Haven Site,” and authorizing the city to seek funding for the installation and maintenance of the device from the state.

“We’d like to have the box here as soon as possible,” Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said. “As soon as we see what’s coming down from the state and other partners we might find. We hope to do something here within the next couple of months.”

Commissioners in February had made amendments to the Hobbs Safe Haven for Infants Act, the Hobbs News-Sun reported. Those changes allowed for the surrendering of infants, 90 days or less in age, to be surrendered via a “safety device” or “baby box” without parental fear of criminal prosecution.

Hobbs Fire Chief Barry Young said the Safe Haven baby box is a much needed asset for Hobbs and surrounding areas.

“The whole baby box concept really hit home here locally when we had the incident with the baby thrown in the dumpster,” Young said. “There was a lot of discussion as to what can be done on the part of the city and prevent it from happening again. Prior to that incident, I don’t know of any incidents as such, especially in my 20 year career.

“My opinion is, if it can save one baby, it’s definitely worth the cost.”

New Mexico Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, agrees.

According to Gallegos, who has been an advocate of the baby box since “Baby Sal” was found in the dumpster. While it has been a slow, uphill climb, he said, cities across New Mexico are taking steps in the right direction to continue to offer more options to mothers who feel they have no other choice than to give up their child.

“Loving and Carlsbad have both contacted me about having a box installed in their cities,” Gallegos said. “In order for a city to have a box, they have to have a 24-hour fire station so we may end up with about 30 of these boxes statewide. The thought is, if we have at least one per county in the state, then we can offer more options to these women.

“This next year, I intend to make adjustments because the bill still leaves some liability with the mother and we want to make sure, in the overall scheme, when the child is placed in the box, there is no liability for the mother. We also want to make sure that if the grandparents or father want the child, they have to the right to go and do a DNA test to be able to get the child back from CYFD. This is the first step and I’m really proud of Hobbs.”

Young said the approval on Monday night’s consent agenda is only the first step in the process. It allows the city to establish an account where it can start funneling money from donations. There also will be an annual $300 service fee for the company that provides the box.

Young said the process isn’t as simple as some might believe.

According to the consent agenda, $18,500 must be raised for the installation and fees of the box. Of that, $11,000 is the initial fee for the box itself.

Gallegos said a portion of the cost to the city has been pledged to be covered by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who offered in February to cover the cost of five baby boxes to be placed around the state, with Hobbs following the first in Espanola.

“This will give women options that they didn’t have before. This is an anonymous option that has never been given to women in the country before,” Safe Haven Baby Box founder Monica Kelsey told the News-Sun. “It is pivotal to give women options. We can prevent those incidents from happening like the case that happened in January. It’s sad that it took that case to provide an option for the community there. I am thankful that baby survived and they are moving forward.”

Kelsey said the company already has 98 baby boxes in five states, with New Mexico being the sixth.

In Indiana, where Kelsey is from, two to three babies a year were found dead before installing the boxes. After the installation, zero infants have been found dead, and a record number of babies have been recovered in the boxes, she said.

“We’ve literally changed the tide. We’ve turned it around in Indiana and Arkansas. We’ve had a total of 14 babies (recovered) in the last three years in our boxes and we’ve had 115 women surrender at fire stations,” said Kelsey. “Our program doesn’t just revolve around women going to boxes, it revolves around giving women options.

“We’ve had almost 130 babies, moms and dads, come through our program in a little under three years.”

Cobb agrees a baby box will provide options for people struggling with how to handle an unwanted newborn.

“This box indicates that we (Hobbs) care about children and we also care about the people that are struggling with some of the issues related to having children and not knowing what to do. We hope that this gives them an opportunity to feel like they can take the child and put it in a safe environment and not make poor decisions,” Cobb said.

According to Kelsey, after the money is raised and the contract is signed, it will take about two to three months to build, deliver and install a box.