The newborn did not wail when it happened, but she fussed.
All 3 pounds of her squirmed against the folds of the bath towel her mother had wrapped around her after giving birth just hours before.
No one knows where she delivered, but it wasn’t at a hospital.
That afternoon, the young mother — who looked to be in her 20s or 30s — drove alone to the Northwest Fire Department in Greenwood County. She parked in front of the firehouse and pushed down on the car horn, hard, until help arrived.
This was it, the moment of surrender.
This legally protected choice to give up a child, which can be found in all 50 states, was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court last month when it overturned the constitutional right to abortion established nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade.
Firefighter Toby White heard the blaring and ran outside, abandoning a training session that would have to wait. He reached the car and walked to the driver’s side door. The woman behind the wheel rolled down the window.
He reached out as she lifted her daughter up through the open car window. Then she repeated the motion. The mother had used an identical towel to swaddle her second little girl in a similar terry cloth embrace.
They were shockingly small. One baby was 3 ounces heavier and a half-inch longer than the other.
White stared down stunned as he held one in each arm.
I don’t want them, the mother told him. Do y’all mind taking them?
Looking at her, White said it seemed like she couldn’t bring herself to get out of the car.
He tried asking questions: What’s your name? Are you injured? Do you need medical attention?
“But she wasn’t there to talk,” White said. “It just seemed like she wanted to get out of there.”
Five years ago on that hot August day, the unidentified woman disappeared after surrendering her babies in a rare but entirely legal choice in South Carolina.
No one is sure if such actions, covered under what’s known as safe haven laws, will come into greater use in the years to come. But during oral arguments in December, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who voted with the court majority, floated them as an option to address the burdens of parenting.
“Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?” she asked.
Surrendering infants rare, but it happens
In South Carolina — and elsewhere — it’s unclear if safe haven laws are acting as an abortion alternative. Fifty-three infants have been given up since 2009 under South Carolina’s governing “Daniel’s Law,” according to data from the S.C. Department of Social Services, with five infants relinquished last year.
It’s a fraction of the more than 6,000 abortions performed in the Palmetto State in all of 2021.
Nearly 56,000 live births were reported by state health officials in 2020.
The most safe haven surrenders reported in a single year is six, which has happened twice, in both 2016 and 2019.
When now-former state lawmaker Doug Smith sponsored South Carolina’s Safe Haven Act, he wasn’t thinking about it in connection to abortion. The Spartanburg County Republican was trying to prevent more babies from being abandoned on the side of the road, dumped in a ditch, dropped off a bridge or, in one especially troublesome case documented in 2003, being left in a truck stop toilet off Interstate 85.
The law, which came to be known as Daniel’s Law, is named for the baby boy who was buried in an Allendale County landfill shortly after his mother gave birth to him in September 2000 — three months after the law passed.
“If the choice is to kill a child or bury it in a landfill, then let’s find that alternative,” Smith said of his thoughts behind the bill. “We all have to recognize that a child will die without a piece of legislation or a law like this.”
South Carolina’s safe haven law is simple: Infants younger than 60 days old can be left anonymously at a hospital, police station, fire station, outpatient medical facility or any place of worship so long as the child is left in an employee’s hands. If the baby is unharmed, the parent or person surrendering the child faces no criminal charges.
“The mother is not a villain,” said Connelly-Anne Ragley, a state Department of Social Services spokeswoman. “She is not a bad person by making this decision. She is making the best decision that she sees fit at the time. This is a courageous choice.”
Relinquished babies are placed in DSS custody and put in a licensed foster home. At the same time, DSS immediately takes legal action in a series of family court hearings to free the child for adoption and also give family members a chance to step forward and claim the child.
“Those in crisis have a safe way to give their babies a loving family under Daniel’s Law,” a DSS brochure promises.
As of July 15, there are 3,953 children in foster care in South Carolina. So far this year, 221 adoptions have been finalized, but it is unknown if any of those adoptions were of safe haven babies.
While a majority of child welfare advocates praise safe haven laws as being worthwhile even if just one baby is saved, others say these laws have blind spots.
No silver bullet
Adam Pertman, president and CEO of The National Center on Adoption and Permanency, predicts states like South Carolina could see more children surrendered under safe haven laws if abortion restrictions tighten further.
He also questioned the efficacy of these laws, noting that parents still kill and still abandon newborns in dangerous places.
“A woman who would kill her kid is not of stable mind, is not emotionally stable, and is not making good decisions,” Pertman said. “Well, I’m sorry, but a woman who is ready to kill her kid is probably not going to react to a sign on a bus and have her boyfriend drive her to the police station instead.”
He also cautioned that safe haven laws do not consider the physical and emotional toll a person faces during and after pregnancy.
“We know every single woman who abandons or places her child for adoption suffers from trauma,” Pertman said. “This has lifelong implications and ramifications. We know that. And abandonment doesn’t address any of it. It just treats women like vessels.”
State Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, represents the county where more infants have been relinquished under Daniel’s Law than anywhere else in the state.
To date, seven infants, including the twin girls left at the fire station, have been given up here since 2009. No one knows why so many have been left in Greenwood. DSS data about the surrenders is too small and inconclusive, Ragley said.
“But those are seven lives saved,” said McCravy, who is one the most vocal anti-abortion lawmakers in the Statehouse and is heading the ad hoc committee discussing a potential new ban on abortions in South Carolina.
McCravy said he wants to see the state’s safe haven law expanded and more widely promoted.
“It’s like the suicide hotline,” he said. “It’s important that people know one exists before they decide to do something unthinkable. Same way with this law. They need to know there is a way out for them mentally and that they can do this and save the baby. To me, that’s just so important.”
Asked if he would like to see additional state funding for DSS to do a dedicated public service campaign about Daniel’s Law, McCravy hesitated.
“I don’t know about more dollars. DSS has a lot of dollars already,” he said.
Summerville sees last pre-Roe surrender
When a pregnant woman in her early 20s arrived at Summerville Medical Center last month in early labor, registered nurse Amanda Osborne said something became very clear to the medical team as they talked with her.
She was not going to keep the baby.
“She knew what she wanted to do but had difficulty communicating that decision,” said Osborne, who is the director of the hospital’s Mother Baby unit. “She was looking for a safe haven but didn’t know how to verbalize it.”
When the mother learned about the safe haven law, she almost didn’t believe it. She kept saying she didn’t want to “be in trouble” for what she was about to do.
Even now, little is known about the women and parents who surrender these children. Osborne said she’s only seen three safe haven mothers during her 20-year career.
None of them, she said, had received prenatal care. The reasons why are complicated, ranging from lack of access to care to being in denial or even trying to hide the pregnancy.
“On some level, they know. But getting prenatal care means that you are acknowledging and dealing with it, and then needing to make a plan for what happens after,” Osborne said.
As the mother labored in a room on the second floor of Summerville Medical Center, she faced more questions.
Did she want the baby in the room after she delivered? Did she want to hold the baby?
She said “no” to both.
Hours later, on June 1, she gave birth to a 6-pound, 11-ounce baby boy who was 20½ inches long. Three weeks and two days later, the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, where Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that states have increasingly adopted safe haven laws which “allow women to drop off babies anonymously.”
Dr. Constance Guille, a reproductive psychiatrist and the director of the Medical University of South Carolina’s Women’s Reproductive Behavioral Health Program, said the delivery of a child is not the end of the physical and emotional demands of pregnancy. About 20 percent of women will experience a mood, anxiety or substance use problem over the course of pregnancy and the postpartum year.
“Because it’s not about this single event of birthing a baby,” she said. “It’s about everything that goes with it.”
About two or three years ago, someone showed up at the Northwest Fire Station with a pair of twin girls.
They were now toddlers — still so small in such a big world. The last time they were here, they had each been wrapped in a towel.
When they came back, not everyone who was working that day knew their story. Toby White, the firefighter who held them, wasn’t on-shift.
“I wish someone would have called me,” he said.
His boss, the bald and broad-shouldered Greenwood County Fire Chief Steve Holmes, said that he understands.
“If it’s an injury in a car wreck, we can find out later on whether we were successful in helping the children. But these kids,” he said, taking a sharp inhale, “we take them and protect them for a few minutes and then we give them to the next authority and they’re gone. We never know what happened to them.”
“And that’s, you know, not always a good feeling,” he said, “that not knowing.”
White said he still wonders about those girls.
Three weeks after he held them in his arms, his wife gave birth to their daughter.
At the hospital, he said he thought of them when he first held his little girl.