Halle Burke is a freshman in a suburban high school in Denver, Colorado. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair, with a sweet personality. She reminds me a lot of my niece. Unlike many teenagers, she doesn’t sprinkle sentences with the word “like.” She takes time to answer questions, and she speaks with a level of thoughtfulness and deliberateness that is rare among teenagers. She is special in many ways, including being one of the first safe haven babies in Colorado.
Colorado enacted a Safe Haven law in 2000, which allows a mother to leave her newborn up to 72 hours old with personnel at a fire house or hospital, no questions asked. As long as the baby is unharmed, no criminal charges will be filed.
The purpose of the Safe Haven law is to prevent infant abandonment by allowing a woman to anonymously, legally, and safely hand over her baby so both the mother and child will be safe. The mother won’t be prosecuted for “abuse or neglect of a child on the sole ground of abandonment if the abandonment is in accordance with the safe haven laws.” And the baby will be in safe hands, have access to immediate medical care, and usually be quickly adopted into a loving family.
That’s exactly what Halle’s birth mother did. On February 15, 2003, three years after the passage of Colorado’s law, Halle’s birth mother took two-day-old Halle to Station 2 in Westminster, a northwest suburb of Denver. She left Halle in the hands of two firefighters and walked away. The firefighters took Halle to a hospital nearby and contacted Adams County social services.
John and Julie Burke, a Denver couple, got a call about Halle and went to the hospital as fast as they could. John told me when he and Julie walked into the nursery, he saw this baby girl stare at them with these big brown eyes, and they immediately fell in love with her. They adopted her and named her Halle, because in Julie’s words, “After doing fertility treatments for however long we did them, we were like ‘Hallelujuah, now we have a baby.'”
John and Julie created a loving family for Halle and two other children they adopted. They are very open with Halle about her birth story. Halle said, “When I hear that story, I always think of hope.” Julie even wrote a book about it: “Fire Station Baby.”
But life can be cruel sometimes. When she was young, Halle sometimes got teased by other kids for being adopted. Some kids said mean things such as “If your mommy loves you, she wouldn’t have left you.” Halle used to feel deeply hurt. But over the years, she has learned to take pride in her birth story and is proud to introduce herself as a safe haven baby.
Today, she likes to tell her story to whomever wishes to listen because, firstly, it makes her feel special. Secondly, she hopes that by making public her story, she will someday find her “tummy mommy.”
In 2015, Halle was reunited with the two firemen who accepted her from her birth mom. They told Halle that she looks very much like her birth mother. Since then, Halle has pictured her. In her dreams, her tummy mommy likes bubble gum and always dresses in ’80s style, with big hair and big hoop earrings.
I asked Halle what she wants to say to her birth mom when she meets her one day. Halle said she just wants to make sure her birth mom is okay, and that she wants to thank her.
In a video produced by Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns about three years ago, Halle said, “there’s a lot of women, people, who are afraid to have babies and when they do they make bad choices about it, but my tummy mommy made a really, really good choice.” So Halle wants to thank her for being “brave” because her birth mom made sure Halle was left in safe hands so Halle could have a family and a “really good life.”
Since 2000, about 60 babies like Halle have been saved under Colorado’s Safe Haven law. All 50 states have safe haven laws on the books, although these laws vary from state to state in terms of the age limit and circumstances required to relinquish an infant. According to National Safe Haven Alliance, about 3,600 safe haven babies nationwide have been saved. But more babies could have been saved had there been a greater awareness of the safe haven laws.
In Colorado, there are several high-profile cases involving tragic deaths of newborns since the enactment of the Safe Haven law, probably due to mothers’ unawareness of the protections and alternatives the law provides.
Women Who Don’t Choose Life
In 2004, 29-year-old Erin Pendleton gave birth to a baby boy in a restroom at a Denver sports bar. She left her newborn to die in a plastic bag in the restroom’s trash can. She left the bar and went on drinking with her friends in a different bar.
A janitor found the body of the baby boy the next day. An autopsy indicated the baby boy had been born alive but died of suffocation. Erin was sentenced to 40 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to the charge of child abuse resulting in death, a second-degree felony.
In 2017, 16-year-old Alaya Dotson gave birth to a baby girl in her family’s bathroom. According to her statement to police later, she didn’t even know she was pregnant until she delivered the baby. Here is what happened next: Dotson wrapped the baby in a blanket and took it to the backyard. She found a rock on the ground and “pushed the rock down the baby’s throat with her thumb.”
Later, Dotson’s mother discovered the baby inside the blanket. She called 911 and the baby was rushed to Colorado Children’s Hospital. But the doctors couldn’t save the baby. The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide. Dotson was charged with first-degree murder and is still awaiting trial.
Linda Prudhomme, the executive director of Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns, commented on Doston’s case, “We can’t know what helplessness, fear, or shame would cause her to do such a horrible thing. We do know that the Safe Haven Law would have given her a humane alternative. And we do know that she didn’t know about this law.”
Colorado’s Safe Haven law took effect before most teenagers, including Dotson, were born. No high schools in Colorado currently teach the Safe Haven Law. Halle told me that none of her friends had ever heard of the Safe Haven Law until she mentioned it.
“The Safe Haven Law can only work if the mother knows about it. And the only comprehensive way to reach girls approaching child-bearing age is to talk about it in school,” said Prudhomme. That’s why Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns supports a new bipartisan bill, SB 19-025, sponsored by state Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Republican, and state Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat, which is currently under consideration in Colorado State Assembly. T
he bill states that any school that chooses to provide a local comprehensive health education program must include in the school’s curriculum “information relating to state laws that provide for the safe abandonment of newborn children to specific persons, including firefighters and clinic or hospital staff, within 72 hours of birth.”
Halle testified at the Colorado State Capitol recently to show her support for this new bill. She shared her story with lawmakers and there were no dry eyes left in the room by the time she finished.
Offering Pregnant Mothers a Better Choice
Several blue states, including New York, Virginia, and Vermont, are pushing for late-term abortion bills, which have been sold to the public as offering pregnant women who don’t want their babies a choice. These bills have gone so far as to allow a baby to die even after delivery as long as the baby’s birth mother indicates she doesn’t want the baby.
But Halle has a different message to all pregnant women: “If you don’t want your baby, you have a choice. Please take them to a safe place. So your baby will find a loving home and your baby will love you for what you did.”
Ladies, if you are pregnant and you don’t want your baby, you have a choice. Please call toll free, 1-888-510-BABY (1-888-510-2229). Someone will answer any questions you have, explain different state laws, and help you identify options, 24/7. The sooner you reach out for help, the more control you have throughout the process.
I asked Halle what she wants to do when she grows up. She said she wants to be either a nurse who can help other people, or have a career in politics because she likes public speaking and debate. I am certain that, whatever she chooses to do in her future, she will be immensely successful. Please share Halle’s story as widely as possible. Let’s help Halle find her brave tummy mommy.