A woman speaks from a podium on a stage with other people standing on either side of her.
Former Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton, speaks at a Thursday press conference about Connecticut's SAFE Haven Act. Ginny Monk / CT Mirror

In the more than 20 years since the inception of a state law that allows new parents to leave newborns they can’t care for at emergency rooms without fear of criminal charges, 52 babies have been relinquished at Connecticut hospitals across the state.

Connecticut’s SAFE Havens Act was enacted in 2001. Every state in the country has a version of this law, and Texas passed the first one in 1999. The laws aim to prevent cases of infant abandonment in which babies are left in trash cans or outside.

At a press conference on Thursday, supporters of the law spoke to raise awareness of the law for the younger generations of parents. It’s been years since the law passed, so they periodically need to remind the public about its existence, they said.

“This addresses the concern that moms might have who deliver a baby and find for whatever reason that they can’t raise that baby or take care of it,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said.

The state law allows parents to relinquish their babies without facing charges for abandonment, although the parents can still be tried if abuse or neglect occurred.

Parents who give up their babies under this law have 30 days to change their mind. They can begin assessments and services with the Department of Children and Families to see if reunification is possible, said former Rep. Pamela Sawyer, R-Bolton.

Sawyer spearheaded the effort to pass the law when she was in the legislature. She’s now the first selectwoman in Bolton.

She said she decided to prioritize the issue after reading the story of an infant left under a tree near a parking lot who died from exposure to the elements. She said in order to prevent that from happening, outreach about the program has to be ongoing.

“The next generation that comes up has the need to know,” Sawyer said Thursday.

Nine babies were left at hospitals in Connecticut during the early parts of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Last year, two more were dropped off, and none has been left so far this year, according to DCF data.

One of those children was adopted in 2021 by Kasey Fredericks, a West Hartford resident. Fredericks and his now ex-husband had been trying to adopt for three years and had been considered for placement twice, but they weren’t selected either time.

Then they got the call that there was a baby at the hospital that could be placed with their family. They stopped at Target to pick up a stroller and a car seat, and Fredericks’ sister scoured Amazon to make a list of the other things they needed.

“It was thrilling,” Fredericks said in an interview. “It was shocking. It was very unexpected. We didn’t know if we were actually ready for the journey in that moment, but we just had to sort of go along with it.”

After three days at the hospital, they took the baby home. For the first several months of her life, she was legally named “Baby Girl Doe,” which couldn’t be changed until the adoption went through.

Now, she’s named Charlotte, which her parents picked for its timelessness. She likes playing on slides and watching Disney’s “Frozen” movies. For her second birthday in March, her family went to ride a carousel.

Like Charlotte, most of the babies are adopted. About five have been reunited with their biological families, said Ken Mysogland, bureau chief of external affairs at DCF.

National spotlight

Safe haven laws have come into the national spotlight recently, with close ties to the anti-abortion movement.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggested that the laws could be an alternative to abortion during oral arguments in the Dobbs v. Jackson case that led to the Supreme Court’s ruling that abortion access isn’t guaranteed in the United States. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. also referenced the laws in the court’s decision.

Bysiewicz reinforced Connecticut’s commitment to ensuring access to abortion during Thursday’s press conference.

“No matter what happens at the federal level, the governor and I, the attorney general, are very committed to making sure that no matter what happens that we provide reproductive health care for women,” Bysiewicz said. “If a certain type of health care is illegal in another state, we want women in America to know that they can come to our state for that care. And we want the health care providers in our state to know that they can give that life-saving and critical care without fear of prosecution.”

Speakers at Thursday’s press conference said the law had saved lives and allowed the babies to get permanent homes. Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, said the decision to give up a child is immensely difficult.

“We all hope for the best for our children, we hope that they will be happy and healthy and experience life to the fullest,” Seminara said. “From the moment they are born, every decision we make has our children’s well being and future in the forefront.”

Opponents have criticized such laws, saying that the people who relinquish their babies do so in moments of desperation when they need social services, not termination of parental rights.

Sawyer said giving parents who might change their minds 30 days was an important piece of the legislation. Each parent receives a packet of information and a wristband that matches the baby’s, so they’re identifiable.

Parents who relinquish their babies aren’t required to give personal information, although the nurses at the hospital do ask for it. 

“Our message is not just to those who can hear the stories but to that person who feels isolated and alone,” DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes said, “to that person who feels the level of desperation that would lead them to leave a child in an unsafe space.”

Fredericks said that it’s important to remember to focus on what’s best for the child, particularly for other parents who may be going through the adoption process. After the first couple of times they didn’t get to adopt babies they had been considered for, he and his then-husband struggled.

But the end result was worth it, he added.

“I feel like it’s hard for me to put into words a comparison because I don’t have one, but I know that in general it’s a very risky process,” he said. “In our situation, it really couldn’t have worked out better. I think it was an amazing opportunity for us to become parents instantly and start caring for her right away, as any other traditional family would.”

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.