BELEN — No shame. No names. No judgement.
“This is for mothers who find themselves in a place no one else could understand,” said Monica Kelsey, founder and CEO of Safe Haven Baby Box on Tuesday morning in Belen.
Kelsey, along with a healthy crowd of city residents, local and state elected officials and other supporters, was at the Belen Fire Station under cloudy skies to dedicate the fourth Safe Haven Baby Box in New Mexico and the 175th in the nation.
The box is designed to prevent infant abandonment as it gives parents who feel they can’t care for their newborns a safe place to anonymously surrender the baby.
According to Kelsey, there have been three babies abandoned in the state in the last 15 months, two of which died. The baby that survived was placed in a Baby Box in Hobbs late last month.
The box in Hobbs, which was dedicated in May, was the result of an 18-year-old woman putting her newborn baby in a garbage dumpster in January 2022. The baby lived. The woman was convicted of attempted murder and child abuse, and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
There are also Baby Boxes in Española and Carlsbad.
To help mothers in crisis in Belen and throughout Valencia County, Stephanie Guerrero and Margaret Ridley approached the Belen city county in March 2022 with the idea of bringing a Baby Box to the Hub City shortly after the baby was found in Hobbs.
“Look at all of us,” Guerrero said Tuesday at the dedication, her voice full of emotion. “We came together. This isn’t a political thing, this is a community thing. We went to the city and said whether there is funding or not we want to do this. We put our money where our mouth is.”
Guerrero, who is the married to Pastor David Guerrero of First Baptist, and Ridley rallied church and community members, raising $17,979 for the project.
During an update to the city council in February, Guerrero said the funding would completely cover the cost of work and construction for the box, and anything left would go toward promotional material for the Baby Box.
The city also received $10,000 from the state for the project. Last year, lawmakers passed legislation that set aside $330,000 — enough to fund a Baby Box in each of the state’s 33 counties.
Belen Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Wessels said having the Baby Box at the station “fills us with pride and is a great responsibility. This is for the safety and well being of our smallest citizens. To all the parents, know that you are not alone. This is about community and compassion.”
Sen. Greg Baca (R-District 29) called the occasion a “great morning.”
“It is an admirable thing to preserve life after birth and give options to troubled mothers,” Baca said. “I want to thank you all for standing tall for life after birth. This is a landmark moment for Belen; we can show how it should be.”
Baca helped introduce the capital outlay request in the Senate to fund Baby Boxes state wide.
While there are “safe haven” laws in all 50 states allowing infants up to a certain age to be surrendered without any criminal charges at safe locations such as hospitals, those surrenders typically have to be done face-to-face.
In New Mexico, parents can relinquish a child at a hospital, fire or police station within 90 days of birth without penalty. New Mexico is one of only 14 states that also allows infant surrender using a baby box; surrenders in all other states must be done face-to-face to be considered legal.
The box — which was installed on the northeast corner of the Belen fire station at 121 South 5th Street — is embedded into the exterior wall of the fire station, and can be accessed anonymously from the outside by a person wishing to surrender an infant.
During a demonstration of the box during the dedication, Kelsey noted there is a 60 second delay before a silent alarm is triggered to notify emergency responders that a baby has been placed in the device.
“That way the mother has time to leave, so there isn’t a face-to-face encounter when the firefighters come to the box,” she said.
When a baby is placed in the box, the exterior door locks preventing it from being reopened.
There is a plastic bassinet inside the environmentally-controlled box, which emergency personnel can simply remove while inside the fire station with the baby inside.
“They take the bassinet out, get into an ambulance and take the baby to the nearest medical facility for evaluation,” Kelsey said of the process. “It’s really, really simple.”
Additionally, when the outside door is initially opened, a bright orange bag falls out containing resources for the person leaving the baby, including a 24-hour Safe Haven Crisis Hotline (1-866-99BABY1) and other resources available in Valencia County. The person leaving the infant also has the option to remain completely anonymous or to fill out a form in the box to provide medical and family history of the infant, and other information such as tribal status.
According to the agreement between the city and Safe Haven Baby Box, the city will pay Safe Haven an initial fee of $11,000, and an annual fee of $300 for maintenance.
The council also approved a memorandum of agreement with the First Baptist Church of Belen that the church would pay the $300 fee, as well as the $500 renewal fee due every five years.
The city will pay for the expenses to maintain the device, training and public awareness.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.