Pam Stenzel’s ringtone is a fireman’s pager. She wants to make sure she can hear it ring at every hour of the night.
“I need to make sure it wakes me up, and that’s the only thing that wakes me up at 2 a.m.,” she laughed in our interview over the phone.
Stenzel is one of the founding members of an organization called Safe Haven Baby Boxes, a company that installs temperature-controlled boxes throughout the country designed to act as safe and completely anonymous locations for mothers to surrender children they can no longer care for — a growing need, as abortion rights continue to be challenged state by state and the Supreme Court stands poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
As a licensed therapist with a master’s in marriage and family therapy, she has been counseling women experiencing crisis pregnancies for her whole professional life. Since Safe Haven’s founding in 2016, she oversees the entire hotline program, supporting women as they consider or are in the process of surrendering their babies.
“My job is to give you all of the information, and I’m going to tell you what it’s going to cost you on the back end,” she explained.
The company was conceptualized on the back of a Delta Airlines napkin by CEO Monica Kelsey: scrawled out excitedly on a flight from Cape Town, South Africa heading back to her hometown in Indiana.
“I was going to Cape Town on a speaking tour and brought Monica along with me,” Stenzel recalled. When they saw a box installed on the side of a church, they asked the pastor what its purpose was. He explained that it was for babies. The area had been undergoing an abandonment crisis, and when two boys playing soccer found a newborn, placenta still attached, in a garbage bag, he had decided that action must be taken.
This idea lit a fire under Kelsey, Stenzel remembered — perhaps because Kelsey herself was abandoned as a child. They kick-started the concept in the U.S., built five boxes and now, 115 safe surrenders later, they foresee no limits to their expansion.
All 50 states have different age requirements for surrendering infants, rules that vary widely. In Florida, a baby has to be under seven days old. In Indiana, the baby must be under 30 days old, the average. In North Dakota, the baby can be up to a year old.
This can be confusing to navigate for a young mother with a newborn, especially if she is already struggling for other reasons — which is where Safe Haven Baby Boxes comes in. The website provides easy access to surrender laws and a registry where mothers can anonymously submit information after surrendering.
“We’ve really offered, probably more than any other Safe Haven organization in the country ever, access for these girls to get help, which is desperately important to us,” said Stenzel. “She’s got to take advantage of it, but it’s there.” Stenzel also offers free Zoom counseling sessions and has stayed in touch with numerous mothers over the years.
To surrender a baby with Safe Haven Baby Boxes offers something unique that many young mothers crave: anonymity.
Stenzel recalled one particularly memorable phone call when a young woman in a rural town in Indiana gave birth alone at home and wasn’t in close proximity to a baby box. Stenzel walked her through her other surrender options over the phone, all the while thinking that the young woman was so calm it was “hard to believe it was real.” After careful consideration, the young woman resolved to walk to a Walmart and call 911 from there. When the paramedics arrived to claim the baby, the young mother was mortified that she had to hand off her baby to someone she knew from high school.
“Why are mothers going all the way to fire stations and leaving their babies at doorsteps? It’s pretty clear that the woman wanted anonymity. That she doesn’t want to face anyone,” Kelsey noted. This fear of being recognized can be fatal for a baby, and is a concern that the organization makes sure to completely remove from the equation.
The biggest obstacle Safe Haven faces is making its services known and readily available. “Education and awareness is probably the hardest job that we have… unfortunately the biggest part of education and awareness really comes when there’s a dead baby found and everybody wants to know what to do,” lamented Kelsey. “That’s never a good thing when people are being reactive instead of proactive.”
Stenzel’s fire alarm ringtone seems fitting. While Safe Haven’s call to action doesn’t require leaping into fires, it still resonates with a level of bravery and commitment that has saved numerous lives. As a young woman mostly relegated to watching the ongoing battle over abortion rights from the sidelines, as politicians and judges dictate what I am allowed or not allowed to do with my own body, I also find it comforting to witness a powerful, female-led change-making organization supporting women who are in dire need of affirmation, comfort, and guidance.
“A mother who looks someone in the eye and says ‘I want what’s best for my baby and that’s not me’ is heroic, Kelsey said. “We should never diminish that.”