On Aug. 24, 1996, the body of a newborn girl washed up in Horsetooth Reservoir. More than 23 years later, we may finally find out what happened to her Erin Udell, email@example.com
One February evening in 2003, a couple knocked on a fire station door in Westminster, Colorado.
With them was a newborn baby. They surrendered the two-day-old girl, leaving her with a lieutenant and paramedic on duty — no questions asked, no names taken.
Since 2000, Colorado’s Safe Haven law has allowed parents in crisis to surrender their newborn babies at fire stations, hospitals and freestanding emergency rooms as long as the babies are unharmed and less than 72 hours old.
State legislators first pushed for the law after a spate of abandoned babies died across the state in the 1990s, including Larimer County’s “Baby Faith” and Pueblo’s “Baby Hope” — two eerily similar homicide cases from 1996.
The newborn dropped off in Westminster in 2003 was one of the first surrendered under the law. Within days, she was placed with foster parents John and Julie Burke. The couple named her Halle and adopted her at six months old. Now she’s 16.
Halle is one of Colorado’s 66 “Safe Haven babies” who have been surrendered under the life-saving law since its adoption in 2000. Of those, four were surrendered in Larimer County, according to educational nonprofit Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns.
Yet, in the nearly 20 years since its adoption, education around Colorado’s Safe Haven law has proved to be an uphill battle. Babies are still being abandoned and left to die across the state — so much so that Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns Executive Director Whitney Vaughn has used a baby’s death as an awareness opportunity at least three times since she joined the organization in October.
Most recently was the Nov. 5 arrest of Jennifer Katalinich, a 42-year-old Erie woman, in connection with Baby Faith’s 1996 death.
It’s unclear if Katalinich, an 18-year-old Colorado State University student at the time the newborn was found in the waters of Horsetooth Reservoir, was Baby Faith’s mother. Investigators have declined to say whether Katalinich is related to the baby, and Katalinich’s attorney declined to comment for this story.
But like the nonprofit often does when high-profile infant deaths gain regional or national attention, Vaughn used Katalinich’s arrest as a “means of sharing the importance of the Safe Haven law.”
Advocates have spent the better part of two decades scrambling to spread awareness of the law, and the tide might finally be turning to make their work easier in 2020.
Infant deaths spark Safe Haven laws across nation
Jodi Allen Brooks remembers them all.
First, there was the teenager.
She was pregnant but concealed it — all the way to the point that she gave birth without her parents’ knowledge in their middle-class Wausau, Wisconsin, home. Alone and scared, she zipped the infant into a backpack and left it in the family’s garage, where its body was discovered days later.
The next was older, 30.
Her name was Julie Quinn, and on Dec. 21, 1995, she passed out while giving birth to a baby boy in a bathtub at home in her small central Wisconsin town. She awoke to the sound of him gurgling, put him in a plastic bag and covered him with fabric scraps in her craft room, according to news reports at the time. The following year, a Wisconsin jury found Quinn guilty of first-degree reckless homicide and concealing a corpse. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Then there was the mother and daughter in Mobile, Alabama.
Mitzi Variali was 22, pregnant, unmarried and from an affluent Alabama family. Her mother, Diane, reportedly helped her conceal the pregnancy and in August 1995, when Mitzi gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the two drowned him in a toilet. Three years later, the Varialis were each sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Allen recalls being fresh out of college — a brand new reporter at the TV station in Wausau — when news broke of the baby in the backpack. Now, three decades later, she’s back home in Colorado, where she serves as the president of Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns after helping form the nonprofit in 2004.
Her experiences as a TV reporter were pivotal in her involvement with Safe Haven awareness.
In 1996, Allen covered Quinn’s trial. She still easily remembers her name and how she looked — frizzy red hair, bright orange jumpsuit — in that Portage County courtroom more than two decades ago.
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She also covered the trial of Mitzi and Diane Variali. Allen can still see the courtroom packed with their friends. She recalls one of the first headlines she wrote in the case: “Mother and daughter, both dressed in pink, both wearing pearls, both charged with murder.”
“It’s not a crime to get pregnant. It’s not a crime to have a baby,” Allen said over the phone from her Englewood home. “But there’s so much fear and shame that if we can give these women a safe alternative, maybe we can protect them from a lifetime of guilt, of possible prosecution, and save a baby.”
In 1992, the U.S. Children’s Bureau used newspaper reports to estimate that 65 babies had been discarded nationwide. By 1997, that number had jumped to an estimated 105.
Around that same time, Allen — then a TV news reporter in Mobile, Alabama — helped create and promote a program that let women surrender their newborn babies to area hospitals without legal repercussions. In 1999, it gave way to the adoption of Alabama’s Safe Haven law.
Other states hurried to pass similar legislation allowing for scared or ill-equipped mothers to surrender their unharmed newborns to hospitals — no questions asked, no abandonment charges filed.
“The idea and the spirit behind all of the laws is the same, and that is really to help a young woman in a moment of panic,” Allen said.
“We’re not fighting the pro-life, pro-choice fight,” she added. “This isn’t a Democrat or Republican fight. It really is, ‘The baby’s crowning … What are you going to do?'”
Colorado passed its version of Safe Haven in 2000 — four years after Baby Faith and Baby Hope were pulled from Horsetooth Reservoir and the Arkansas River, respectively. By 2004, 45 states had adopted a Safe Haven law. By 2008, all 50 did.
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“The match was lit, and it was on fire. Everybody was passing laws to save babies,” Allen said. “But what quickly happened was that there no funds tied to these laws and no education (around them) so all of the sudden, we’re passing laws, but nobody knows about them.”
In July 2004, one month after Allen returned to Colorado, three dead babies were found abandoned in Denver over a two-week span, she recalled.
She reported on the deaths for Denver’s Channel 4, where she worked at the time.
Then — alongside a group of five other concerned citizens — Allen formed the nonprofit Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns, which seeks to educate people about the state’s Safe Haven law.
“When you surrender a baby (under the Safe Haven law), a lot happens,” Allen said.
“There’s a mom who doesn’t have to live with the guilt of committing a crime. There’s a baby who’s now alive, and there’s also a family who’s been waiting for a baby to call their own for who knows how long. It’s really amazing.”
Despite the law and the organization’s efforts, parents across the state have continued to abandon their babies — sometimes to die.
For a report in the Colorado Sun earlier this year, the state health department recently counted the number of infants who died within three days of being born who did not die in a hospital and whose deaths triggered a review from Colorado’s Child Fatality Prevention System.
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Two recent cases in Denver helped inspire additions to the law that could bring more awareness to mothers in crisis.
On Sept. 8, 2017, police responded to reports of a deceased newborn girl in a Denver backyard. She died that morning, and doctors at Children’s Hospital later removed a rock that had been lodged in the baby’s throat, according to a 9News report from that time.
The girl’s 16-year-old mother was initially arrested on a first-degree murder charge, but her case is now closed, pending a motion to dismiss from Denver’s district attorney, according to court records. The Denver DA’s office declined to comment further on the case, given the teen’s age.
Last month, 25-year-old Highlands Ranch resident Camille Wasinger-Konrad was sentenced to life for killing her newborn daughter. On Jan. 2, 2018, Wasinger-Konrad reportedly gave birth to the baby girl in her home. Covering her mouth, Wasinger-Konrad carried the girl downstairs to the home’s back deck, tossed her over a fence into her neighbor’s backyard and left her there to die.
Each case “just breaks my heart,” said 16-year-old Halle Burke, who has spoken out about being a Safe Haven baby since elementary school.
Now the high school sophomore regularly advocates and speaks on behalf of the law.
“They need to know that they have a choice,” she said. “You don’t have to do that.”
Signs of change for Safe Haven awareness
There’s a sign outside of Station 1 just off of Windsor’s bustling Main Street.
Set against the firehouse’s red brick entrance, the white plaque features a sweeping blue logo of an arm reaching out to cradle a baby. “Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns,” it reads. “You must give the baby to an employee.”
Every Windsor-Severance Fire Rescue station has one, identifying it as a drop-off location under Colorado’s Safe Haven Law. Despite Fort Collins’ sole Safe Haven baby being surrendered at Poudre Fire Authority’s Station 2 in 2006, PFA does not have any of these signs and has no plans to add them, according to PFA spokesperson Annie Bierbower.
The signs are part of one of the many awareness campaigns Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns has rolled out since forming in 2004.
“It’s speaking engagements. It’s telling the story. It’s (getting) publicity,” Allen said of the organization’s outreach efforts. “It’s not like we cure cancer here. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
In October, the organization welcomed Vaughn, its newest executive director in 13 years. With her at its helm, Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns plans to post infographics about the law on the back of bathroom stalls at gas stations, on college campuses and in grocery stores across the state — part of a widespread campaign set to unroll in early 2020.
The organization also saw recent legislative wins that expanded the Safe Haven law’s reach and could possibly smooth the road toward more awareness among teenagers.
In 2017, Colorado Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker, introduced a bill that passed the following year expanding the locations Safe Haven babies could be dropped off: at freestanding emergency rooms, in addition to hospitals and fire stations.
Smallwood sponsored another Safe Haven bill that passed this spring. Under it, public schools in Colorado that choose to provide a comprehensive health education program must include information about the state’s Safe Haven law. It went into effect Aug. 2.
Smallwood said he became interested in Safe Haven improvements after the two high-profile deaths of newborn babies in the Denver area.
“Once (the location expansion bill) got passed, we had so many people come up to us and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this law existed,'” Smallwood said. “It just appeared to me that there was a lot of work that could be done.”
16 years later, a Safe Haven baby learns to drive
Halle Burke is a homebody.
She loves talking to friends and baking them goodies.
She’s a big sister to the Burkes’ two other adopted children, 14-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Olivia.
She ran cross country this fall and plans to join the track team at Broomfield’s Jefferson Academy, where she’s a sophomore. She’s officially learning to drive.
“Yeah, we’re painfully going through that process,” John Burke said with a laugh over the phone from the family’s Thornton home.
Without Colorado’s Safe Haven law, things might have worked out differently for Halle and the 65 other infants surrendered since 2000.
“(Halle) would not be here had it not been for that law,” John Burke said.
Without her, the Burke house might not be filled with the aroma of baked goods. There wouldn’t be any white-knuckled training drives. Alex and Olivia wouldn’t have a big sister.
Without her, Halle said her friends probably wouldn’t know anything about Colorado’s Safe Haven laws.
But she’s here to tell them, and others, her story — thanks to that February night 16 years ago, when a knock came to a Westminster fire station door and someone answered.
The unidentified babies of Colorado
Of the 26 unsolved homicides involving unidentified victims in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s cold case database, seven are infants who were discarded after birth — including Larimer County’s “Baby Faith.”
March 24, 1966: A deceased newborn boy is found wrapped in a patterned blanket and left on the side of a road in west Lakewood. The boy’s mother has never been found.
Dec. 10, 1970: A newborn baby boy is found dead in the toilet at a Woolworths store on 16th and Champa streets in Denver. His mother has never been identified.
May 30, 1994: Denver police discover the body of newborn girl and determine she had been possibly discarded after birth.
Aug. 15, 1995: Denver police respond to reports of a fetus discovered in a grassy area within the city’s Lincoln Park housing projects. Due to suspicious circumstances surrounding the baby girl, it has been investigated as a homicide.
Aug. 24: 1996: Shortly after 8 a.m., a newborn baby girl was discovered near the banks of the Arkansas River by the Pueblo Reservoir. She is named “Baby Hope.” While there have been no recent updates in her case, it is considered open and active, according to Pueblo Sheriff’s Office Investigations Captain Leroy Mora.
Aug. 24: 1996: A newborn baby girl who had been born within the previous three days is discovered, umbilical cord still attached, wrapped in a brown towel, placed in a garbage bag and weighed down with rocks in Horsetooth Reservoir outside of Fort Collins. Two 11-year-old boys discover the body and the unidentified infant is later named Baby Faith. On Nov. 5, 2019, 42-year-old Jennifer Katalinich is arrested in connection with the infant’s death. Her next scheduled court appearance is a disposition hearing in Larimer County court on Jan. 21.
Sept. 11, 2002: A day-old baby boy is found wrapped in a blanket and left in front of a repair shop in Weld County. He died of exposure.
All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in court. Arrests and charges are merely accusations by law enforcement until, and unless, a suspect is convicted of a crime.
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