FORT SMITH -- Struggling parents in the River Valley will have access to a new resource designed to help them and their newborn babies.
Fire Station No. 11 at 8900 Massard Road is expected to be the site of a Safe Haven Baby Box by the end of the year, according to Fire Chief Phil Christensen. It will provide an option to help parents who are considering abandoning their baby, allowing them to surrender their baby anonymously to station personnel.
Christensen said Tuesday he wasn't aware of any recent cases in Fort Smith of babies being abandoned, but said based on his research, 931 children nationwide had been left at the steps of a fire or police station during the past 10 years. In addition, an estimated 18 babies have been left in the baby boxes since 2017.
The city Board of Directors voted 6-0 July 20 to approve a five-year agreement with the Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes to provide such a device for Fire Station No. 11. Jarred Rego, Ward 1 director and vice mayor, was absent.
The city will pay Safe Haven Baby Boxes a $10,000 initial fee on top of a $200 annual fee each year of the agreement, as well as all costs for installation, according to the agreement.
Safe Haven Baby Boxes will own the device and carry out a variety of annual services. This includes providing material relating to device maintenance, repairing or replacing parts, providing the general public information about the device and other educational resources and operating a toll-free phone number the public can use in emergency situations involving abandoned children or related issues.
Sharon Kersh, an area resident, contacted the department about installing a baby box in February, according to a June 18 memo Darrell Clark, a battalion chief, wrote to Christensen.
"The box will be installed in an exterior wall of Fire Station 11," Clark wrote. "There is an exterior door that, when opened, causes a silent alarm to be transmitted to our dispatch center. There is a bassinet inside for the child to be placed in. The bassinet has an electronic beam going across it that, when broken, sends a second silent alarm to dispatch. After the exterior door is closed, it sends a third silent alarm to dispatch. Dispatch notifies the fire station and the personnel retrieve the baby from the box through an interior door."
Clark wrote personnel would contact Fort Smith Emergency Medical Services, which would then medically assess the child. The child then would be taken to a hospital, and from there would be taken by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, according to Christensen.
Sharon and Eugene Kersh have offered to cover the $10,000 initial fee for the baby box, according to Clark. Donnie Wise, a local contractor, helped select the best location to install the box and, along with Glenda Wise, offered to cover installation costs by donating material and labor. The Fire Department intends to use donations to cover any additional installation expenses and fees, as well as costs to advertise the device.
Christensen said Fire Station No. 11 was chosen for the device in part because its secluded location would allow potential parents to maintain their anonymity.
Baby boxes can be found in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, according to the Safe Haven Baby Boxes website. This includes fire stations in Benton, Conway, Jonesboro, Rogers and Springdale.
Cliff Thompson, deputy chief of the Rogers Fire Department, said the department's baby box at Fire Station No. 5 at 2525 S. Pinnacle Hills Pkwy. was opened for service in March. A second baby box is being installed at Fire Station No. 7 at 3400 S. First St.
Thompson said although no babies have been left in the Rogers baby box so far, the community would prefer to be proactive than to react to a problem.
The box is a safe last resort to keep parents from doing something that would harm their baby, according to Thompson. If a parent were to contact the Safe Haven Baby Boxes hotline, they would receive support and be directed to resources if they need that.
They also would be encouraged to take their baby to a hospital or another facility where they could do a face-to-face surrender if possible. If the parent determines no other alternative is acceptable, they will be directed to the nearest available baby box.
Arkansas Code §9-34-202 — Delivery to medical provider, law enforcement agency or fire department
The law states any medical provider, law enforcement agency or fire department will take possession of a child 30 days old or younger without a court order if the child’s parent, without expressing an intent to come back for him or her, leaves the child with them or voluntarily delivers the child to them or in a “newborn safety device.”
This device has to be voluntarily installed by the medical provider, law enforcement agency or fire department, physically located inside such a facility that is staffed 24 hours a day by a medical services provider and located somewhere conspicuous and visible to the employees of said facility.
Source: Arkansas Code of 1987