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Fire stations, including this one in Lafayette, on March 15, 2019, are designated sites under Colorado's Safe Haven Law, which says a parent can drop off a baby within 72 hours of birth without fear of child abandonment charges. Infants must be handed to an employee. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

They will tell her someday, a few years from now, how she became their daughter.

“Baby Doe” was her original name. She was born at the Big Bunny Motel on West Colfax Avenue, weighing 5 pounds with a head of dark hair and street drugs running through her tiny body. Her grandmother walked her to the nearest fire station and handed her over to a Lakewood firefighter under Colorado’s Safe Haven Law, intended to save newborns who otherwise might end up thrown away.

Heather and Travis Hanley, foster parents to about 20 children over the years, got the call about 10 a.m. that January day in 2015, only hours after their baby girl was born. They met her at the hospital, where the nurses thought she deserved a name and were calling her Charlotte.

“She was beautiful and tiny,” Heather Hanley recalled. “Dark brown hair, big brown eyes. We were smitten immediately. A lot of kids come and go and you just do and say what needs to be done, and some are different. We knew instantly she was meant to be here.”

Ava Hanley’s original name was Baby Doe. She was brought to a fire station in Lakewood under Colorado’s Safe Haven Law in January 2015 and later adopted by a Littleton family. (Provided by the Hanley family)

Her name is Ava now. She’s 4, goes to preschool, loves playing with her Newfoundland puppy and giggles with her little sister before she falls asleep at night. She was Colorado’s 45th Safe Haven baby.

The Safe Haven Law was passed in 2000, making it legal to drop off an infant at a fire station or a hospital within 72 hours of birth with no threat of child abandonment charges. Since then, 64 babies have been given up under the law. The number isn’t climbing or dropping, instead it fluctuates each year — 11 babies in 2006, one baby in 2012, four in 2018.

At the same time, the number of newborns abandoned to die, murdered after birth or whose deaths triggered a state review in Colorado has remained steady.

At the request of The Colorado Sun, the state health department counted the number of babies who died within three days of birth, did not die at a hospital and whose deaths triggered a review by the state’s Child Fatality Prevention System. There were seven deaths in the three-year span from 2009-11, six deaths from 2012-14, and seven deaths from 2015-17.

The causes of death included neglect or violence, but also unknown reasons and sudden unexpected infant death. The data was released in three-year increments for privacy reasons, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

So is the Safe Haven Law making a difference in Colorado? The simple answer is that it worked for 64 babies. “Clearly it works. For those babies, it worked,” said Linda Prudhomme, executive director of Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns, part of a national network that raises awareness about the law. “Unfortunately, we know that sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Two horrifying cases of newborn deaths grabbed headlines in Colorado in recent years. In 2017, a 16-year-old Denver girl was accused of shoving a rock down her newborn baby’s throat after she gave birth in her home. Alaya Dotson had concealed the pregnancy from her mother, who found the baby in the back yard and called 911, according to the teenager’s arrest affidavit.

And in 2018, a 23-year-old Highlands Ranch woman was accused of tossing her newborn baby onto a neighbor’s back deck. The neighbor walked outside to go into her hot tub and found the dead baby, an umbilical cord still attached. In interviews with detectives, Camille Wasinger-Konrad said she didn’t know she was pregnant until she gave birth. She admitted that she put her hand over the infant’s mouth and then threw the body over a fence, according to authorities.

The gruesome cases led to a renewed push to raise awareness of the Safe Haven Law, not well-known among today’s teenagers, who were babies themselves or not yet born when — one state at a time — the law was enacted across the country throughout the early 2000s. Colorado lawmakers this year passed legislation requiring schools to teach the Safe Haven Law as part of their sex education curriculum.

“People don’t tell their kids about it because they don’t think it can happen,” Prudhomme said. “But you can’t predict who that woman is going to be that is going to be in crisis. No one thinks that is going to happen to them.”

Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns formed in response to the deaths of three infants in the summer of 2004, four years after it became legal to bring newborns to fire stations and hospitals. One of the babies was born in a bathroom at Legends bar in Cherry Creek, then placed in a trash can where the janitor discovered the infant’s body. “We are not pro-life or pro-choice. We are pro-baby that has been born and is in the first few hours of its life,” Prudhomme said.

The number of babies given away under the Safe Haven Law each year is small because it’s an action of last resort.

“It’s usually trying to keep a secret, usually a person that has been hiding her pregnancy because of shame,” Prudhomme said. “The college student who hides the pregnancy, denying it to their friends and family and isolating themselves. When that baby is born, psychologically, they aren’t even thinking of it as a baby anymore.”

The person handing over the baby — a parent, family member, social worker or minister — doesn’t have to put anything in writing. They can walk away without a signature, without a trace. They must give the baby to a person — not leave it on a doorstep — and say they do not intend to return.

About half of babies given away under the law were brought to fire stations, while about half were born in hospitals.

When a mother who gives birth in a hospital tells nurses she does not want the child, a nurse or social worker is supposed to inform the mother of the Safe Haven Law, as well as how to start the adoption process. A mother who doesn’t want anyone to know she was pregnant is the most likely to choose the Safe Haven option.

“Safe Haven is the last resort for families and moms in particular who are in really difficult situations,” said Lucinda Wayland Connelly, child protection manager for the state child welfare department. “It gives them one final option, as opposed to just walking away and leaving a baby nowhere.”

“That’s why there is such low numbers — it’s because it is the option of last resort.”

Babies brought to hospitals or fire stations are given physical exams, and authorities call child protective services to pick up the infant. The baby enters the county child welfare system, same as a child who was removed from their biological parents because of abuse and neglect. Caseworkers will try to place the baby with foster parents who are interested in adoption, since it’s unlikely someone will show up to contest an adoption.

Child welfare workers begin pursuing a termination of parental rights for the infant, a court process that typically still takes months even when no parent is contesting.

A parent who gives up a baby under the Safe Haven Law is relinquishing their parental rights, and under the law, cannot come back for the baby a few weeks or months later. Nor is the parent entitled to any information about the baby, Connelly said. In one recent case, a woman who left her baby at a hospital called six months later wanting to know who adopted the child. Child welfare officials refused to say.

When Ava arrived at West Metro Fire Station No. 1 that winter morning, she had hypothermia. She had lost a lot of blood during birth, was anemic and going through drug withdrawal.

She stayed a night in the hospital before coming home with the Hanleys, whose three boys were 9, 7 and 5 at the time. Ava was lethargic for the first few months, a common symptom of babies born with drugs in their system. In the following years, she would need physical and speech therapy because of developmental delays.

She is also susceptible to respiratory illness and spent much of last week in the hospital with RSV. Ava returned home Friday, to her four siblings and a new puppy in Littleton. “When you are already living in chaos, what the heck, let’s add another,” her mom said, laughing about the new family dog, Yogi.

Ava Hanley, 4, lives with her four siblings and parents in Littleton. She is among Colorado’s 64 “safe haven” babies, who were dropped off at fire stations and hospitals shortly after birth. Ava was brought to a fire station in Lakewood in January 2015. (Provided by the Hanley family)

Because of a lie that backfired, the Hanleys would eventually learn more about Ava’s birth mother than was ever intended under the Safe Haven Law. The same lie is the reason they now have Ava’s biological sister.

When Ava’s grandmother brought her to the fire station, she made up a story that she hoped would distance herself and her daughter from any perceived wrongdoing — even though the woman could have handed over the baby and walked away, no questions asked. She told firefighters she got the baby from a couple at Walmart who told her they couldn’t care for the child and needed to give her away.

A police investigation followed, with detectives scanning camera footage from Walmart to find a couple who had given away an infant. In the end, Ava’s birth mother came forward to tell the truth. No one was charged.

But because of the short-lived investigation into the mysterious and fake Walmart couple, child welfare authorities learned more about Ava’s first few hours of life and her birth mother. The young woman was living on the streets and caught up in drugs and gangs. When she had another baby two years later, a little girl also born in a motel and then brought to a hospital, child welfare officials — who try to place siblings together — called the Hanleys.

The Hanleys now have Ava’s little sister, Bella, and are seeking to finalize her adoption. The girls’ biological mother died at age 29.

“Thank goodness her sweet babies are safe,” Heather Hanley said.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...