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Bipartisan bill allows parents to give up unwanted newborns in ‘baby boxes’

Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill Wednesday aimed at providing a safe and anonymous way to give up unwanted infants

A snowy scene at the Wisconsin State Capitol
Sidewalks are mostly empty around the Wisconsin State Capitol on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Gov. Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill Wednesday that would expand Wisconsin’s safe haven law that allows parents to anonymously and safely give up an unwanted newborn.

Since 2001, the state has had a process for parents to relinquish a baby that is up to three days old to law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians and hospital staff. The parent is not obligated to provide information about the infant, but has to give up the baby in person under that law.

The new law allows parents to anonymously put newborns in devices known as baby boxes that can be installed in hospitals, fire stations and law enforcement buildings. The boxes are temperature-controlled and ventilated for the baby’s safety.

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The boxes automatically lock once an infant is inside and set off an alarm inside the building.

Republican Rep. Ellen Schutt, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, said she introduced the bill after a tragic incident near her district earlier this year. A Whitewater mother was charged with child neglect after burying her baby in a field.

“The woman did not want others to know that she was giving up her baby,” Schutt said. “And we just believe that this option or opportunity for parents to anonymously give up their child in a safe baby box would save lives.”

More than 200 babies have been voluntarily relinquished under the Wisconsin law since 2012, according to data provided by the state Department of Children and Families.

A representative of the department said that because of the complicated nature of these cases, the data may undercount the number statewide.

“Expanding safeguards for kids across Wisconsin is a priority for my administration, and this bill provides a solution that will hopefully keep newborns and infants safe from harm,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “I will continue to advocate for initiatives that work to make our communities and families safer, and I look forward to seeing more bipartisan bills like this in the future.”

The bill had support from a wide range of groups, including the Wisconsin Psychological Association and the Wisconsin Nurses Association, along with anti-abortion groups such as Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Right to Life and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

The baby boxes also have some critics. A New York-based group called Bastard Nation says baby boxes fail to address the root causes of why someone would forfeit an infant.

Some supporters of the bill agreed with that assessment, but said the law could still save lives.

“It’s a safety valve,” said Dr. Bruce Erdmann, speaking on behalf of the Wisconsin Psychological Association. “Is it the best solution? Possibly not. But if a person was so desperate that they wanted to do this anonymously and give up their child, I think that they would have to be facing pretty dire circumstances.””

Rep. Sheila Stubbs, one of three Democratic co-sponsors in the state Assembly, agreed.

“Being able to save that child is really important to me,” she said.