(Edited for length)
Exploitation in the '90s: Alive & Wellby Michelle Renaud, Cambridge MA
I am writing this Editorial as a step towards making sure what happened to me never happens to another woman gain. This incident did not take place in 1945, 1959, 1968 or during the '70s. It happened one year ago - in 1993. ....exploitation of pregnant young women today is as rampant as it was in by-gone eras. The "facilitators" have simply mastered their methods of executing exploitative strategies.
I was 19, my marriage was in a rapidly disintegrating state, and I was pregnant. The potential of homelessness was...moving ever closer to reality. Efforts to find a job were for naught. One look at my young age and obvious pregnancy left potential employers repeating a litany of "no." The law was on my side for maternity leave, and they knew it - regardless of how I pleaded my intent to be a responsible employee.
In desperation I sought help for my marriage, to thwart homelessness, to get help of some kind somewhere. I chose the Latter Day Saints Social Services (LDS) believing they had many "social services" available and would be able to provide alternatives, if not the means for solutions, to the crises I then faced.
LDS agency director Don Staheli listened. He offered no marriage counseling to help us work through the existing problems or salvage the marriage. They would, he said, find housing for me only if I made an adoption plan. No mention was made of a shelter. I didn't know (then) there were safe shelters in the area for women in my position. I capitulated.
Staheli was not only the social worker at LDS, but the director for the New England Agency which facilitates adoptions in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut.
Staheli sent me to a remote suburb. I was allowed to leave the "host home" only to attend church or keep doctor appointments. I was isolated, trapped and knew of no other alternative. Were there any books on adoption? I asked. Don said he didn't know of any. Were there other birth mothers I could talk to? Don said there weren't any in the area.
Staheli knew I wanted to keep my baby. When I asked what kind of help was available if I decided to parent my child, he looked at the carpet, stared at some spot there, then slowly raised his eyes and said, "Welfare." He delivered the word as though it was a level below which no decent human being would stoop. Welfare. That was it. He dropped the word like a ten-ton truck, letting his silence and penetrating eye-contact speak far louder than any words.
A professional response might have been, "Well, you can apply for benefits through Welfare, and you might have to continue that for a couple of years, but you're a capable woman." But he did not. A responsible, professional social worker would have informed me that attending a community college was viable and, in a few years, I would have a marketable skill which would enable me to support both of us if my husband didn't come through with support. He did not.
In part (3), section 5.04 of the Office For Children regulations it states: "Information on Alternatives to Adoption. The licensee shall provide to birth parent/s written information regarding alternative plans for their child." Staheli did nothing of the kind. Instead he said, "When the unwed parents are unable or unwilling to marry, they should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services." (This official LDS policy has been published twice in the Church's magazine The Ensign in June 1994 and September 1994. In the latter case, the policy appeared in an article entitled "Advice For Un-Wed Parents" which showcases one birth mother. The author praised her for relinquishing her parental rights, and criticized her extended family for offering her alternatives, "most of it consisting of ininformed, emotional considerations".)
What Don Staheli did was consciously choose church policy, deigning it to supersede existing Massachusetts state law. In so doing he violatede state law as well as denied my Human Rights as set forth in the Constitution. He offered no marriage counseling, no written or verbal alternatives to adoption, no information about legal resources, no advocacy, and no post-relinqishment counseling.
When, a year ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, I requested he room-in with me. I breast-fed him for five days.
The day before Staheli brought the relinquishment papers for my signature, he "prepped" me over the phone twice saying, "Now the papers are long and involved. The language is harsh, but we will just have to put up with that and get through them." On the day of the signing, Staheli - instead of formally reviewing the document with me until he was sure I understood what I was expected to sign, criticized the harsh language in the papers clearly imparting the message, 'Don't pay any attention to it.'
The Massachusetts General Law Annotated states: "The surrender must be signed in the presence of a Notary Public and two witnesses, one of whom must be of the [birth parent/s] choosing." To my utter humiliation and certainly violating my right of privacy and confidentiality, Staheli brought in his wife (who I'd never met) as one witness. By phone he then requested a member of my "host home" appear as the second witness. The latter thoroughly upset me, for they were the last people I wanted to see at a time that was at once the most traumatic and emotionally confusing of my life. Much as I absolutely did not want them present, without any advocate available I was denied knowing what my rights were and I felt I had no 'say' in the matter.
Mid-way through the signing, I got up and left the room for the nursery to see my son one more time. Staheli insisted on going with me, denying me those few precious, final minutes alone with my son. Staheli's concern: "Close the deal."
I went to LDS Social Services for guidance and direction. They took advantage of my vulnerability, violated my rights, and gave me guilt. I placed blind trust in Don Staheli to provide me with sufficient information to make an informed decision about my future. Staheli honored my trust by lying by omission, and left me feeling robbed and raped.
Once the relinquishment papers were signed, Staheli dropped me like "a hot potato." In an age where the need for post-adoption counseling is recognized nationwide by competent social workers, I got none. I left the hospital empty-handed, spiraling into shock by the trauma of having lost my child, and then left alone to grieve a loss which is the equivalent (or worse) of losing a child to death.
Only on my return to Boston following my son's birth did I finally learn for the first time of the wealth of supportive alternatives and services available to pregnant teens and young adults who want to parent their children. It was a "Satisfaction Survey" Staheli presented to me - after the adoption was final - that clued me in to the fact I had any rights, he had had responsibilities, and that neither were addressed. I began researching the law, OFC regulations - asking questions, making discoveries. And then I called the authorities who began investigating LDS SS.
Staheli ignored his responsibility to tell me places like MA Rehab & Employment Resources, Inc. fund low-income people in training programs (like the one I am in now). He failed to tell me the Communities Development Corporations existed or that it creates and implements programs with goals like "Futures for Young Parents". He failed to tell me Day Care Centers exist and offer sliding-fee scales, and that some employment offices like MassJobs offer transportation reimbursement. He had a responsibility to tell me the WIC program existed, and he did not.
Mine is hardly an isolated case. On August 26, 1994 the Boston Globe published the following: "A single mother from Watertown claims Mitt Romney (Republican candidate for the MA senate) warned her a decade ago that she faced excommunication from the Mormon Church if she failed to follow advice to give her newborn baby up for adoption through a Church agency [LDS]." The woman told her story because, "I was personally offended when he did it to me, but now we are talking about a whole constituency of people he is going to affect." She concluded the interview with, "If there is a God, I think the last thing He would have wanted is for me to give my son away just on somebody else's decision." The article was wrapped around a photograph of this mother and the child she refused to place for adoption.
I wrote Don Staheli a letter. He has not responded. He took a better job as Secretary to the 1st Presidency of the LDS Church. Recently I discovered Don Staheli was not licensed in Massachusetts as a social worker. He left the state days before it was mandatory to file his papers for licensing.
Not long after my letter to Don was written, one of the LDS Commissioners for Social Services (Don's supervisor) came to see me. It struck me as rather remarkable he had come all the way from Sale Lake City. To see me? I asked. He fidgeted, looked at the other man with him, stammered and said he was there "for lots of reasons." Sure he was. The agency was being investigated, and I stirred the pot. His patronizing demeanor was made worse by defending Don Staheli by telling me Don "did the right thing".