Meriden police recently found the woman who abandoned her baby 32 years ago in a parking lot, frozen to death before he was found.
The case inspired the Safe Haven Act, which allows a parent to voluntarily give up custody of their baby — 30 days old or younger — at a hospital emergency room without being subject to arrest for abandonment.
Nearly two decades after Connecticut enacted the law, public and private agencies are still trying to get the word out in hopes of preventing unnecessary abandonment.
Former state Rep. Pamela Sawyer wrote the original draft for the bill, motivated by reading about the abandoned infant in Meriden years ago, after Texas passed a similar law in 1999.
Sawyer said she realized when she read the initial news article how a mother-to-be could be struggling with such a problem and not know how to handle it.
“There are many factors that limit an individual’s ability to care for the child and we didn’t want a parent to harm a child or get to a point where they were so stressed or overwhelmed that they abandoned the child,” Ken Mysogland, bureau chief of external affairs at the Department of Children and Families, said of the law.
Mysogland said legislators recognized that some mothers — for reasons religious, social, economic, and others — decide they can’t care for their new baby.
He said parents are committing a loving act in these circumstances.
“We’re not looking down on people,” Mysogland said. “We believe clearly parents who utilize this act are making the right decision for their children and we want to keep this availability for parents in the forefront so it reaches as many people as possible.”
The Meriden mother was 25 years old at the time and, having hid her pregnancy, she gave birth alone in her apartment. Police said she called the local fire department afterward anonymously to report “something” they needed to find in the parking lot, but didn’t specify it was a baby, the Record-Journal reported.
“In this case it was a woman in a very bad place,” Sawyer said. “We don’t know what that means but we can imagine. She thought she was doing the right thing.”
Sawyer said she had goosebumps learning the mother said she would have used the Safe Haven Act if it had existed.
“It speaks to why you need the Safe Haven Act,” Mysogland said of the situation.
Since 2001, 35 babies have been surrendered at Connecticut hospitals through this act, according to the Department of Children and Families. They’ve come to hospitals in New Haven, Bridgeport, Norwalk, Greenwich, Middletown and many others. All of those babies have been adopted or transferred to a relative.
In the same period, 10 babies have been found abandoned, half of whom died, according to an informal accounting by DCF. The agency doesn’t have a reporting system yet for “abandoned” babies, Mysogland said.
Mysogland said the effectiveness of the law is demonstrated by the 35 lives that are being cared for by loving people.
“We can only imagine where they’d be or the plight their life would have taken if this opportunity wasn’t available,” he said.
Sawyer said for every baby’s life saved, another’s is saved by preventing the parent from being prosecuted. She said the state was blessed to get its own law passed but failed in not spreading the word immediately.
“I see this as having been effective, only as far as it goes,” Sawyer said. “If someone doesn’t know there’s a law that can help them, there can be severe consequences.”
All 50 states have versions of a safe haven law and, to date, more than 4,000 infants have been safely surrendered to “safe havens” nationally, according to the National Safe Haven Alliance.
However, since 1999, 1,465 infants also have been found abandoned, about two-thirds of them deceased.
Laws differ among states on where parents can safely leave babies. Some places include firehouses, police stations and churches, but in Connecticut only hospital emergency rooms qualify under the safe haven act.
The most recent reported abandonment case occurred in Danbury in 2018, in which a 22-year-old woman left her bundled newborn behind a grocery store hoping someone would find and care for him.
When the woman was charged, she said she had hidden her pregnancy and didn’t know about the Safe Haven Act.
Sawyer said in most cases of abandonment or neonaticide — killing a baby less than 24 hours old — there’s a pattern of women and girls hiding their pregnancies, lacking a support network and not knowing about the Safe Haven law.
She imagines many of the mothers are in panic, desperate and young.
Years after the law passed, Sawyer said more abandoned baby cases appeared in the news and people realized the law needed to reach younger generations in perpetuity for it to work.
“The word needed to get out there regularly because the next generation would grow up and someone needed to know who was in desperate straits,” she said.
In 2018, Connecticut passed a law requiring state public high schools to educate students on the Safe Haven law.
“Safe Haven is basically useless if only a small amount of kids know about it,” said Douglas Hood, a former Yale New Haven Hospital neurologist who has researched neonaticide in Connecticut.
In neonaticide cases, it’s hard to know whether a mother could have the wherewithal to utilize Safe Haven even if she knows because of her vulnerable psychological state, Hood said.
Neonaticide “crimes do not occur solely because of a mother’s mental impairment,” according to research by Michelle Oberman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “Rather they result from a combination of the mother’s vulnerable mental status and the social isolation and other factors that shape the context in which she is expected to parent.”
In these cases, it might be more helpful if peers knew about Safe Haven and were encouraged to report their friend’s suspected pregnancy, Hood said, similar to the way they’d report drug use or suicidal behaviors.
Mysogland said DCF works continuously to spread information about Safe Haven in as many areas as it can — hospitals, schools, health clinics and anywhere that asks.
“I hope that with the knowledge of this act that individuals who feel overwhelmed by the care the child needs know that there are supports in the community and they can access them even if they’re not engaged in the Safe Haven Act,” he said.
The first babies given up under the law would be in their late teens now, having been adopted into loving homes.
“It’s good public policy as long as people know about,” Sawyer said. “In areas where the law has been advertised, been taught, been passed through generations, we know it’s successful.”