CBS13 Investigates: Unsafe Surrender?
By Sam Shane and Executive Producer Dave Manoucheri
SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — California law says that a mother can drop off a newborn baby in the first 72 hours of life, no penalties, no questions asked. The entire process is supposed to be completely confidential. Yet a local cop who adopted one of those babies had the happiest 16 months of her life and then had it all torn from her.
Tracy Nugent was approaching her late 40’s when she decided she wanted a child. “Ready, willing and able to provide a great life for a child that needed it,” said the Stanislaus County cop.
Tracy had many options. She could have adopted a child from out of the country; one from Russia, China, anywhere. She wanted to stay close to home. She wanted to adopt a child who needed a good home.
“I wanted a safe-and-surrender child,” she says.
As a police officer, Nugent knew all about California’s Safe Surrender Baby Law.
“I know the law says safe and surrender, confidentiality, no mother, no father involved,” Nugent remembers in an interview with CBS13. “You have custody of the child for six months and then you could begin the adoption process and I was specific in that.”
The law allows a parent of a newborn to leave the baby at a fire station, police station or hospital anonymously. No questions asked. CBS13 spoke with Jim Brulte, former Assembly Speaker and state Senator. He helped design the law. He calls it the most important thing he’s ever done.
“There were stories about young women, primarily young women, abandoning children, and they were abandoning children in dumpsters, they were leaving them in paper bags, in bathrooms,” says Brulte, “and too often these children were dying.”
It seemed like a perfect fit for Tracy.
“But working in my line of work and seeing all the children out there that need homes, that need guidance,” Tracy remembers, “there was never any doubt.”
Eventually she got a call from a social worker at the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services that they had a baby for her.
“They told me that it was a safe and surrender child,” Tracy says, “and I instantly knew what that meant and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is a miracle.”
That three-week old miracle was hers. She had a baby boy. For Tracy, it was a dream come true, but it wouldn’t last. Just weeks after she brought her baby boy home Tracy Nugent got another call. This one was from a social worker telling her the boy’s biological father had suddenly come forward.
“I was just crying, I was driving when I received the telephone call, I was devastated,” says Tracy. “It was something that came out of nowhere.”
Under the Safe Surrender law, the names of the boy’s biological mother and father were never to be known. Any records of their identities were to be sealed, never to be revealed. But apparently there was a mixup.
“I’m still to this day in shock, now because this was not supposed to happen,” says Tracy.
The biological father, Richard Frackowiak, says through his attorney that he never even knew about the baby until after it was born. According to a court declaration obtained by CBS13, the baby’s biological mother gave up the baby for adoption under the safe surrender law after he was born at Mercy Hospital of Folsom.
Somehow, someone, either from the hospital or from the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services leaked what was supposed to be confidential information about the biological mother’s identity.
Jim Brulte says that’s a problem.
“That’s horribly illegal in this state,” hey says, “and I would certainly hope the authorities are moving heaven and earth to find out who broke that law.”
CBS13 wanted to know what the county was trying to do. We contacted DHHS, who says “the case has been reviewed and CPS [Child Protective Services] followed all procedures correctly.”
CBS13 also obtained a letter from the DHHS Ombudsman saying that the county feels the hospital is at fault for not correctly labeling the baby as safely surrendered. The hospital won’t comment on the story. Beyond the letter, the county will not speak on-camera either.
When Frackowiak found out he was the baby’s biological father he demanded custody and a social worker told Tracy her dream was slipping away.
“So I asked her, what you’re saying is, you’re going to take the child,” said Tracy Nugent. “She said the judge could do whatever she wanted but most likely yes.”
After months of phone calls and letters along with lawyers and court hearings Tracy had run out of time and out of options. The judge ordered the baby to be returned to his biological father.
“So I packed up all of his stuff, had it waiting, car seats, strollers and the social worker came at noon, not a minute after. I brought the baby out to my driveway and she told me ‘let’s get moving’,” said Tracy, describing her last moments with her son. “So she took the baby from me, put him in a car seat and, um, he just looked at me, I tried not to cry and upset him and did a pretty darn good job, he was just staring at me cuz he obviously, he knew something was happening, he’s 16 months old, he’s a big boy now. I put my hand on the window, he looked at me, he blew me this kiss and never lost eye contact.”
Jim Brulte says “no family should have to go through that, um and no child should get caught in that struggle.”
Tracy says “As they pulled out the driveway he just stared at me and they drove off and I have not heard from anybody, I have not received any phone calls, nothing. The end.”
Tracy has filed a lawsuit against both Sacramento County and Mercy Folsom alleging they mishandled this case. She also contacted the Sacramento County Grand Jury and her local District Attorney in the hopes of sparking a criminal investigation. In the end, though, all she really wants is to get her son back.