By Elizabeth Regan
Don’t trash your baby.
It’s the bold message from a public-private working group committed to publicizing the state’s 15-year-old Safe Havens law to a new generation.
Against the backdrop of a stark promotional poster showing a half-opened dumpster in old snow, former Republican lawmaker Pamela Sawyer and other members of the group Thursday introduced a new advertising campaign to make sure desperate parents know there is an alternative to leaving their newborn children to die.
The Safe Haven law allows any parent — in practice, it’s usually a young mother — to anonymously leave an infant at a hospital without fear of prosecution for up to 30 days after birth.
Thursday’s event also bolstered a bill before the legislature to establish April 2 of each year as Safe Haven Day.
Sawyer said efforts to reinvigorate the law, which passed in 2000, were spurred by news last August of a baby found in the garbage outside an East Hartford home.
The mother, Geralyz Sotomayor-Cruz, is awaiting trial for charges of first-degree manslaughter, first-degree assault, risk of injury to a child, and concealing a birth. She was 18 years old at the time of the delivery.
Sawyer cited statistics showing that more than 50 newborns in the United States survived abandonment in 2014 while 40 did not. At least six babies were abandoned in Connecticut last year; two of them died.
She said the other fatal abandonment allegedly occurred in Danbury at the hands of a high school-aged mother.
It’s the kind of tragedy that takes two lives, Sawyer said — but both mother and child can be spared if young, scared women know the Safe Havens law exists. It’s happened 24 times since the measure was enacted in 2000.
According to the law, a mother in distress can leave her newborn at any hospital emergency room in the state. Medical staff will ask for personal information and health records, but the mother has the right to refuse. The mother and baby are both given matching bracelets so that the mother can come back within 30 days to get her child if she changes her mind.
Out of the two dozen babies who found safe haven in Connecticut hospitals, Sawyer said she knows of one that was reunited with its birth mother within 30 days per the provisions of the law.
“So I believe the law works, except for one fact,” Sawyer said. “If people don’t know what the law is, its an empty law. Our effort here is to find a way to bring it back. To bring the law back and find a way to share it.”
The Safe Havens working group is made up of representatives from the legislature, hospitals, universities, state agencies, and the news media. It has met every three weeks since September to come up with a plan to publicize the law. In addition to the poster and a “Save Two Lives” logo unveiled by Christine Palm of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, the group also developed radio and television public service announcements and a social media marketing plan. The group is focused on conveying the information in multiple languages.
Douglas Hood, a physician assistant in neurology at Yale-New Haven Hospital, is one of the members of Sawyer’s group. He said his own personal research, culled from sources including police and psychiatrist’s reports, has revealed nine cases in Connecticut of mothers who kill their babies within 24 hours of birth. It’s called neonaticide.
“I know there are others out there that I just couldn’t find,” he said.
Hood is one of the co-facilitators at York Correctional Institute’s writing program along with novelist Wally Lamb. The two testified last year on a bill that would address sentencing and parole issues pertaining to crimes committed by children. One of the inmates Lamb spoke about was a young woman who received an 18-year sentence for an act of neonaticide committed when she was 17 years old.
He called her by the alias “Christina” when he talked about the conscientious student who earned exemplary grades in high school and was headed to college in Boston that fall. He said old-world attitudes from her parents and threatening behavior from her boyfriend made her pregnancy a stressful one.
“She also was the victim, we feel, of unsupporting school officials who knew but never told her about the Safe Haven law,” Lamb said.
Now, Christina wants to work for the Safe Haven cause when she is released from prison, according to Lamb. Her maximum release date is February 2024.
Hood said it is difficult to determine how many other women in Connecticut have done what Christina was convicted of doing.
Some of the cases are cold. Some were dismissed. Some of the babies were never discovered at all, Hood said.
“The babies are almost always put in the trash,” Hood said. “In many cases we’re very lucky to have discovered these newborns. And then that begs the question, well, how many are we missing?”