On Wednesday’s episode of NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” a storyline involving an infant safe surrender box sounded the alarm for both the Chicago Fire Department and an advocate for abandoned children, who called the plot “misleading.”
In a scene from the most recent Season 11 episode, the character Sylvie Brett, a paramedic, opens up a delivery containing a large temperature-controlled device, and explains it as “a place for people to safely and anonymously drop their newborns under the state safe haven statute.”
Although Illinois has had a Safe Haven Law for newborns since 2001, it does not have a baby box system like other states such as Indiana. Illinois requires that babies who are surrendered are handed over to a person.
“The scene concerns us because it’s not realistic. We just don’t do that here. The law is not written that way,” Larry Langford, spokesman for the Fire Department said Friday. “And we understand that a lot of the TV show is fictionalized and it’s loosely based on us. But we prefer they not do something that may cause someone to misunderstand, misinterpret and do something that might be detrimental to an infant.”
The Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act, also referred to as the Safe Haven Law, gives the families of newborns legal protection from prosecution if they bring a child to a police station, firehouse or hospital. And the law states that an unharmed baby up to 30 days old can be turned over to a staff member at a safe haven location. Mothers or family members handing over a baby to someone aren’t required to answer any questions and can remain anonymous.
Dawn Geras, an executive chairperson for the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit instrumental in getting the Safe Haven Law passed in Illinois, said the law works as it’s written, but the “Chicago Fire” episode might mistakenly lead a mother to a firehouse looking for a baby box.
“It’s wrong and misleading, and I don’t know what kind of consequences that will bring,” Geras said. “There are a lot of people that watch the show. What are they going to do when they don’t find a box?”
There are several reasons why baby boxes are “vehemently opposed” by the Save Abandoned Babies Foundation, Geras said. For one, the interaction between a mother and another human at a safe haven location could lead to a number of support services, she said.
“Typically a fireman or a nurse will see a woman in distress and they’re going to say, ‘Would you like help?’ And in almost 30% of the cases, the moms accept help, be it medical help or counseling,” Geras said. “Given that supportive service, they can also choose to make a parenting plan or make a traditional adoption plan.”
Langford said all firehouses in Chicago have safe haven signs, with additional signage to indicate that personnel should be present when a person hands over a baby.
Citing a case from 2022 when a baby was found dead in a duffel bag on Orleans Street near a firehouse door, Langford said some firehouses are not staffed 24 hours a day. And in the Orleans Street case, they don’t know whether someone tried to ring the doorbell first.
He said someone recently tried to leave a child at the back door of a firehouse on the Southwest Side and slip away, but one of the firefighters saw the incident through the window.
Most of the time, the back doors are unattended or seldom used for entry, Langford said. “It’s possible you could leave a child there and we wouldn’t even know it,” he said.
Langford and Geras fear people might assume the events of the “Chicago Fire” episode are based in reality.
“‘Chicago Fire’ is shot at an actual firehouse and a lot of people know where that is. And I can’t think for anyone, but someone might think, ‘Oh yeah, that firehouse on Blue Island where they shoot the show has a baby box now,’” Langford said. “You might say that’s a stretch for someone to think that, but you don’t know what people think. We’re just better off not having this situation at all.”