Home » Anti-Abortion Activists Launch Civil War Over Florida’s ‘Baby Boxes’

Anti-Abortion Activists Launch Civil War Over Florida’s ‘Baby Boxes’

A feud between two anti-abortion activists over so-called “baby boxes” in Florida has gotten so bad that one filed a lawsuit against her rival, accusing him of undermining her business and asking a federal judge to shut him up.

A lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast pits right-to-life crusader Monica Kelsey, whose “Safe Haven Baby Boxes” have made her a quasi-celebrity on the right-wing speaking circuit (as well as TikTok), against Nick Silverio, founder of Miami-based A Safe Haven for Newborns, whom Kelsey accuses of making “false and misleading statements” about her controversial device. As a result, the lawsuit contends, “several fire stations… have refused to respond or speak to [Kelsey] regarding installations” of them.

The suit reveals intense backbiting between the two, and offers a front-row seat to a unique internecine battle in the deeper folds of the anti-abortion faithful. Both Kelsey, who prays over every new box she installs, and Silverio, whose organization is affiliated with Heartbeat International, a global network of “pro-life pregnancy resource centers” meant primarily to steer women away from abortions, are deeply religious.

“Monica has been sharing her pro-life views with millions of people since February 2011 and works diligently to support pro-life legislators who take a stand to defend the lives of children conceived in rape,” Kelsey’s website tells visitors.

Kelsey’s attorney said he would gauge her interest in an interview for this article, then went dark.

Silverio, who takes pains to present himself in mainstream media interviews as apolitical, founded A Safe Haven for Newborns, which has for years held events at Mar-a-Lago and other properties owned and operated by former President Donald Trump. Silverio is holding the organization’s 7th annual golf tournament on May 17, at the Trump National Doral Miami.

Silverio told The Daily Beast he believes baby boxes are simply the wrong way to surrender a newborn, but declined to comment further.

In her lawsuit against Silverio, Kelsey claims Silverio slandered, defamed, and libeled her by criticizing the baby box method at a meeting last July with public information officers for various Florida fire departments.

“She’s on a mission from God to save babies,” adoptee-rights advocate and occasional Kelsey nemesis Marley Greiner told The Daily Beast. “And if you don’t agree with what she does, you’re an enemy.”

Kelsey’s suit says the South Trail Fire and Rescue District reached out to Kelsey in 2021 about installing a Safe Haven Baby Box at a fire station in Fort Myers. But the deal hadn’t come to fruition, it says. Two years later, Silverio provided “false and misleading statements” about the boxes, in “both verbal and written format,” during the meeting, the suit goes on. Among other things, Kelsey’s lawsuit claims Silverio told the PIOs that Safe Haven Baby Boxes weren’t up to code, are unreliable and potentially unsafe, and could be used by terrorists to plant a bomb in a firehouse or hospital.

It is unclear how Kelsey learned about the meeting. But the lawsuit displays a paper trail leading back to an area Girl Scout who emailed South Trail Fire and Rescue’s director of public relations, Amy Bollen, about her “Gold Award project… the highest award a Girl Scout can earn.”

“For my project, I am working towards the possibility of getting a Safe Haven Baby Box installed at a fire station in Fort Myers,” the Girl Scout wrote in the July 24, 2023 message. “Several weeks ago, I stopped in at Fire Station #62 and spoke with one of the Fire Fighters about the idea of installing one there. He was very receptive to the idea. He gave me your card and suggested I contact you about this possibility.”

The Girl Scout goes on to say that she had recently floated the idea to the mayor of Fort Myers, who recommended she try to get a city ordinance passed that would obviate the need for a state law permitting the boxes.

“The reason we need a local ordinance is because the Safe Haven Law does not cover everything,” the Girl Scout wrote. “In the Safe Haven Law, it says the parent must surrender the baby in person to an employee of the fire station or hospital. This method is confidential, but not anonymous… The Safe Haven Baby Box allows a mother/father to surrender their baby anonymously in a box that is installed in the outer wall of a hospital or a fire station.”

Once the newborn is placed in a bassinet within the ventilated, climate-controlled box, a call to 911 is automatically placed. The door locks, and a short time later, an alarm sounds, according to a Safe Haven Baby Boxes informational packet given to customers. First responders are on the scene within five minutes, and the baby is taken to the hospital for evaluation, after which the child is placed with a family in a closed adoption, often within 30 to 45 days. That is, a structure under which the birth parents and the adoptive parents remain completely unknown to each other (and one experts no longer recommend).

Safe Haven Baby Boxes Inc. charges an initial fee of $15,000 per box, plus an annual maintenance and recertification fee of $500. Other fees and costs, such as a delivery charge ($500), installation/labor and materials ($2,000-$3,500), box hookup to 911 dispatch ($1,200), annual alarm monitoring fee ($500), and pre-construction permits (varies). The box must be blessed within 60 days of receipt, and cannot be announced or revealed to any third party before the blessing occurs, according to the organization’s standard agreement.

“Indiana currently has 103 Baby Boxes, and there are 156 Baby Boxes in the nation!” the Girl Scout’s email concluded. “… Currently, there are 11 states that have a Baby box law. I can’t wait to hear back from you!”

About 30 minutes later, Bollen forwarded the email to her counterparts at seven other Florida fire departments, cautioning them about Safe Haven Baby Boxes, the emails show.

“I received this email today so I wanted to be sure to share the info Alexis and I learned at the state PIO meeting,” Bollen wrote. “Safe Haven Baby Boxes and are NOT endorsed by Safe Haven for Newborns. They are highly discouraged by them. The company who ‘created’ these boxes stole parts of their name to make it seem like they were in it together.”

She then listed a half-dozen bulletpoints, saying the boxes did not comply with the state’s Safe Haven law, which Bollen said requires a newborn “MUST be left with a staff member,” that they are “not supported by Homeland Security as they are easy entry points [into] a building,” that they “breach a large hole in an exterior wall, some of them being rated firewalls,” and that the alarms “are not 100% reliable to notify someone something has been placed in the box.” Plus, Bollen wrote, “They cost like $15,000 or more plus maintenance.”

“I’m sure there are more reasons, Alexis may be able to fill you in more,” Bollen went on. “But I say this because when I tell this Girl Scout no, I want all of you to be aware of why in case you’re the next chosen ones. Obviously, our local politicians need some education, aka Mayor Anderson.”

Kelsey’s lawsuit contends that all of these statements were untrue, arguing specifically that “the Device is leased, not purchased,” and that Florida’s existing Safe Haven statute “does not expressly prohibit surrender via a Safety Device.”

For his part, Anderson, a former police officer, told The Daily Beast that he was extremely disappointed by the South Trail FD’s flat-out rejection.

“They just seemed to dismiss her, they wouldn’t even give her an opportunity to make a presentation to them,” Anderson said. “And I find it ironic that she can get in with the mayor of a city of 98,000 people, but she can’t get in to see a fire chief in a small fire district?”

Anderson said he found Bollen’s light mockery of him “disheartening,” calling her actions “petty” and “unprofessional.” He also said he didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about baby boxes, and that he supported the Girl Scout’s motivation for public service, without taking sides.

“We should embrace young people who commit themselves to a cause, whether we believe in the cause or not,” Anderson said. “It’s a great life experience. It had nothing to do with whether or not I believed in what she was promoting.”

In addition to Bollen’s email, Kelsey claims Silverio ignored a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyer, and “has continued to knowingly propagate these false statements among other fire stations within Florida.” In all, Kelsey says she has “lost several contracts that were being negotiated,” and the criticisms of her baby boxes have caused “future business opportunities to be lost.”

The Florida Department of Health currently has a contract with A Safe Haven for Newborns, Silverio’s nonprofit, to provide statewide community outreach and awareness, according to statehouse documents. Bollen did not respond to requests for comment.

Safe haven laws—a relatively recent phenomenon also called “Baby Moses laws” that allow women in all 50 states to surrender newborns without fear of criminal prosecution—were cited last year by Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett in striking down Roe v. Wade, declaring the ability for a woman to anonymously surrender a newborn an adequate substitute for abortion rights.

The suit is “a sign of how, post-Dobbs, there’s more, sort of, ‘competition’ in this domain,” UC Davis law professor Mary Ziegler, a leading expert on the history of the abortion debate in America, told The Daily Beast, referring to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, that in 2022 struck down the constitutional right to an abortion. “For a lot of the anti-abortion charities and organizations, there’s more demand… And so a lot of these charitable groups that present themselves as the solution [to abortion] are competing for visibility and dollars.”

With abortion rights disappearing state by state, and with Florida on the verge of enacting a ban on the procedure more than six weeks after conception—usually before a woman even knows she is pregnant—Ziegler and many others predict a coming uptick in safe haven surrenders.

The schism has opened up between two seemingly natural allies as Florida lawmakers debate a bill that would allow the use of the boxes at interested hospitals and fire stations after three previous iterations failed to pass. The state’s first Safe Haven Baby Box was installed without state approval in 2021, and received its first drop-off in January. A second box was installed in November at a fire station in Alachua County; the precise circumstances surrounding its installation are unclear.

Florida’s existing safe haven law, enacted in 2000, allows those who are unwilling or unable to care for their newborns to anonymously relinquish them to authorized staffers at hospitals, fire houses, and emergency medical stations, and confers legal immunity on the parents unless there are signs of child abuse of neglect.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Jennifer Canady, issued a statement last spring saying baby boxes provided “options to save lives and protect life at every stage,” according to the Associated Press. But as Florida Senate minority leader Lauren Book, a Democrat who opposes the bill, told the AP at the time, “We can do better than putting children in boxes. The safe haven law we have on the books currently is working.”

In an email, Canady told The Daily Beast that she is seeking to raise the age limit for a parent to surrender an infant, from seven days to 30 days old. This would give parents more time to make a decision, “potentially preventing the unsafe abandonment of infants older than seven days,” Canady wrote, citing a bill analysis she shared. However, the bill also requires the surrendering parent to stay with the baby until an authorized medical services provider arrives to take custody of the child, which seems to run counter to the 100 percent contact-free concept of baby boxes.

Book did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelsey, whose mother was raped and abandoned her at an Ohio hospital two hours after giving birth, argues that women should have every choice possible when confronted with such a situation.

Baby boxes originated in 15th century Italy, in the form of “foundling wheels,” revolving contraptions at Catholic churches where unwed mothers could abandon their newborns in secret. Today, they are banned outright in Germany, and the United Nations more than a decade ago called for them to be abolished worldwide. One prominent adult adoptee organization calls them “anti-adoptee, anti-family, unethical, and dangerous.”

“We don’t always know the plans that Christ has for us, and sometimes the heartache is too much to bear,” her official bio reads. “But when you take a tragic event, and turn it into a teachable moment, Christ will give you the path.”

For Kelsey, it was baby boxes. She launched the program in 2017, and positioned the climate-controlled boxes, which she blesses in ceremonies streamed online, as something that “takes the face to face interaction out of the surrender and protects the mother from being seen.” Today, Kelsey has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, and is widely known as “the Baby Box Lady.”

Marley Greiner, the adoptee-rights advocate, has lobbied strongly against baby boxes.

“There’s a whole spectrum of screw-up for adoptees,” she told The Daily Beast. “But I mean, you find out you were stuck in a box—that’s gonna cause some real problems.”

Proponents like Kelsey argue that if Safe Haven Baby Boxes save even one child’s life, then the entire undertaking is well worth any downside. But much in the same way a cancer patient who raises $1 million on GoFundMe to pay their hospital bills is very much a false “feel-good story,” society has already failed any parent inclined to deposit their child in a box and walk away, others say.

These people “are not folks who are telling us, you know, ‘I’m doing great, it’s just that I couldn’t get an abortion,’” Michelle Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who studies the legal and ethical issues surrounding sex, pregnancy, and motherhood, told The Daily Beast. “It’s folks who’ve got lots of other complicating factors that have taken them to the point where they’re now in panic mode, about to deliver a baby on their own, and have no idea how they’re going to handle it.”

Providing more societal supports to women and families would also prevent babies from being abandoned in the first place, according to Oberman.

The first safe haven law in America was passed in 1999, in Texas, and spread nationwide by 2008. Yet, a lack of substantive, uniform data has made it almost impossible to evaluate their impact. To Mary Ziegler, the results of safe haven laws and baby boxes are almost beside the point. They are “important symbolically for pro-life groups, because they always love to emphasize how similar abortion is to infanticide,” she told The New Yorker in 2021. “Like, if you’re horrified by the idea of surrendering a newborn baby, or putting a baby in a box, why are you not horrified by killing a baby in the womb at fifteen weeks?”

Since 2000, when Florida’s Safe Haven law was enacted, some 381 newborns have been legally surrendered Silverio’s data shows. Since 2016, when the first Safe Haven Baby Box was installed at a firehouse in Kelsey’s hometown of Woodburn, Indiana, 36 newborns have been surrendered in one, according to her organization.

Although numbers vary, it is exceedingly rare for babies to be abandoned illegally, with seven such cases in Florida over the past five years, according to A Safe Haven for Newborns, Silverio’s nonprofit. Still, cases have ticked up in the state over the past 12 months: an abandoned newborn discovered in a dumpster in January; one left in a backyard over Thanksgiving weekend; another dumped in the woods last January near a mobile home park in Polk County. That same month, a woman visiting Florida was arrested after her one-year-old son was found abandoned on the beach in Daytona.

It’s striking that Kelsey is dragging another safe haven activist to court and depleting the funds that would otherwise go to the cause, Oberman told The Daily Beast. And while it’s hard to argue agaist the concept of “saving babies,” we’re myopically focused on the end result, not the root cause, Oberman said.

Traditional Safe Haven hotline volunteers attempt to connect callers with options, including open adoption, which Oberman says is better for the babies as well as the parents. Plus, modern genetic testing means birth parents from closed-adoptions are now easily identified, Oberman and Greiner both pointed out.

“While the intent of the newborn safety device is to honor the perceived desire for anonymity by a birth mother, it is also possible she will not be the individual placing the infant in the device,” the executive director of the Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health wrote in a 2018 letter to the House Families, Children and Seniors Committee.

Oberman argued in an op-ed last month that the best path forward “is to bring safe havens out of the shadows.”

A couple of weeks ago, she told The Daily Beast, “We, as a society, have blood on our hands here. Our failure to deal with a lot of these intractable problems [is what] drives the problem of infant abandonment. From this perspective, the solution of a high-tech box is really quite cynical.”

Kelsey is seeking undetermined actual damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs, and expenses, plus “all other just and proper relief,” from Silverio, A Safe Haven for Newborns, the Gloria M. Silverio Foundation, which Silverio named after his late wife, the South Trail Fire and Rescue District, and Bollen personally.


February 2024