WHITEWATER — A new Wisconsin law is expected to save newborn babies’ lives after a tragedy in Whitewater.
A headstone surrounded by crosses and flowers is a community-funded memorial in Whitewater for a baby who was found dead 8 months ago in a cardboard box.
"It hits you how profoundly sad the whole situation is,” said Whitewater Police Chief Dan Meyer.
It’s a day Chief Meyer will never forget.
"I can tell you what I was doing at the time,” he said. "We don't see this type of stuff typically happening."
For state representative Ellen Schutt, the tragedy exposed a need to update state law.
"We looked at our current Safe Haven Law which allows you to give up your child, but it has to be face-to-face at a law enforcement building or a fire station or a hospital and the incident that occurred in my district, she didn't want people to know,” she said.
Representative Schutt heard from towns and cities in her district that wanted to try to prevent it from happening in the future by installing what’s called Safe Haven ‘Baby Boxes’ until they learned the devices were illegal in Wisconsin.
"We just thought this was the best option to do to make an update so people have an opportunity to save their baby's life if they're in distress,” she said.
Representative Schutt wrote legislation to legalize the devices that are already used in 14 other states, including neighboring Iowa.
They allow parents to anonymously drop off unwanted infants up to three days old in a temperature-controlled setting that triggers an alarm to alert staff that a baby is inside.
Her bill received unanimous support in the state legislature, but Chief Meyer says towns and cities like Whitewater face a different hurdle now, the cost.
"I think in any community our size that's a barrier,” he said. No doubt."
“These baby boxes can cost $15,000 or more. Is that something you thought of when you drafted this legislation?” Reporter Ben Jordan asked.
"Yes,” Representative Schutt replied. “I know in my community that reached out, they're actually fundraising to install the baby box in Elkhorn and they're very close to reaching their goal and I know as I've talked to other communities, they are looking to fundraise whether it's at the law enforcement building or at a hospital."
Ultimately, Representative Schutt believes communities will make funding or fundraising a priority knowing it could save the lives of vulnerable infants.
"I think we may not even know how many people this might help because people who were already using the Safe Haven Law were giving it away to a person and now that there's this option to do it anonymously, we may see even more babies' lives being saved,” she said.
According to data from Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families, the state has seen an increase in the number of babies relinquished through the Safe Haven Law. 27 have been dropped off at locations this year after 29 were relinquished in 2022. That’s upon from an average of 15.3 each year going back the last decade.