Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

'Baby box' on horizon in Portales

Portales’ “baby box” is one step closer to reality after city councilors on Tuesday signed a pact with an advocacy group that’s been raising money for the project.

The device, which would be installed at the Portales Fire Department, is a climate-controlled box in which a baby younger than 90 days old can be safely and legally surrendered. The project has been in the works for more than a year, according to Angie Smith, a Portales resident who chairs Right to Life of Roosevelt and Curry counties and is president of the statewide organization.

“We are very excited and very grateful to finally be at this point,” Smith said.

The New Mexico Safe Haven for Infants Act protects biological parents from prosecution if they surrender a child at a safe haven site before he or she is 90 days old.

The baby box is designed to immediately notify authorities that a child has been placed in it. Infants are then taken into state custody.

Portales City Manager Sarah Austin said there’s a lot of excitement about the project.

“We’ve had a few different meetings where we’ve had a lot of community members step in and say, ‘You know, we need to do this, we want to make sure that these babies have a safe place to go if they need to,’” Austin said. “I feel like we have the community’s support, 100%.”

Background

Smith said she first got interested in bringing baby boxes to New Mexico in February 2022, when she saw a video online about a pastor in South Korea who had installed a similar set-up at his church.

Smith said her organization is best known for its anti-abortion and anti-aid-in-dying legislation activism at the state level.

“I saw this as an opportunity for Right to Life to get to champion something very, very positive that we believed and hoped would draw people even from the pro-choice side into agreement with us,” she said.

Smith partnered with Indiana-based Safe Haven Baby Boxes and quickly won support from Portales city councilors for the concept.

Babies abandoned

Baby boxes and New Mexico’s safe haven law have been top of mind in recent years. Since January 2022, three babies have been found abandoned in separate incidents in Hobbs and Artesia. Only one of those infants survived, after being tossed into a dumpster and found by a group of people rummaging through the garbage. The 18-year-old biological mother in that case told police she hadn’t known she was pregnant until shortly before she gave birth. She was later sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Lawmakers in 2022 approved a bill to expand the state’s safe haven program and provide funds for every county to install a baby box.

The box later installed in Hobbs was used for the first time in September, when a newborn boy was surrendered by an anonymous woman, according to news reports at the time. Smith said 36 babies have been safely surrendered across the country using Safe Haven Baby Boxes.

Plan for Portales

Baby boxes have been installed in several New Mexico counties already, including Española, Hobbs, Carlsbad and Belen, Smith said.

While state funds are available, Smith said Portales will not be using them for its baby box. Instead, community members raised more than $16,000 for the project, while some contractors volunteered their time to help install it.

Tuesday’s vote outlined responsibilities for Right to Life -- which will oversee funds for the maintenance of the box -- and for the city, which will make sure it’s functioning properly. The city still needs to sign a contract with Safe Haven Baby Boxes, Smith said.

Smith said the next step is working with Safe Haven Baby Boxes to have the box built, then installing it at the fire department.

Smith doesn’t have a complete timeline yet, but said the boxes in the past have taken about 11 or 12 weeks to build before being shipped.

Once the box is installed comes a major public outreach effort, which will include billboard advertisements. Smith said she plans to be trained as a presenter on behalf of the Indiana organization to spread awareness of the boxes, and about New Mexico’s law -- which already allows babies younger than 90 days to be surrendered to a staff member at a hospital, law enforcement agency or fire station.

“If you have an individual who just does not feel like they have the courage to face someone as they surrender their child, the baby box allows complete and total anonymity,” Smith said. “It’s to encourage people to choose life for their infants.”

Legal concerns

Earlier this year, city councilors weighed some legal concerns about people’s ability to use the baby boxes without talking to anyone when they surrender a child.

New Mexico’s Safe Haven for Infants Act says the person surrendering the child must leave the infant with the staff of a safe haven site, which Austin said means “that the baby must be placed into the hands of a human being.”

The act says it is “not intended to abridge the rights or obligations created by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978,” which seeks to keep Native children within Native communities. The law says the safe haven staff members must also ask the person surrendering the child whether either biological parent is either a tribal member or eligible to be a tribal member.

The baby boxes, though, are designed to allow somebody to place the baby inside, then leave without having to speak with a staff member.

Ultimately, councilors decided to forge ahead anyway. Austin said the city is operating under the thought that municipalities probably will not be penalized by judges for saving lives.

“We are moving forward on the assumption that that will be something that will be changed,” she said of the requirement that babies be given directly to staff.

Other business

In other business on Tuesday, the council:

• Granted the Portales Fun Center a winegrower liquor license with on-premise consumption and package sales with patio service. The venue, at 1001 W. 18th St., includes a bowling alley, roller rink, shuffleboards, pool tables, an arcade and a golf simulator.

• Moved forward with getting the court system involved in cleaning up several properties that have been deemed dangerous by the city, some of which have been in a state of disrepair for years. City Manager Austin said the court will decide whether the properties are dangerous. If they do, the city will clean them up and then attempt to bill the property owners. The properties are at 820 E. Elbe St., 824 E. Elbe St., 507 N. Ave. K, 509 N. Ave. K and 511 N. Ave. K.