DEENEY: When The State Orders Abortion


[Illustration by LEONARDO DA VINCI]

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY The Daily News’s most recent assault on incompetence and systemic failure at DHS deals with a touchy topic: the agency’s unusual role as abortion advocate with its pregnant juvenile clients.  Regina Medina’s story details how the agency got a court to order the procedure after the client’s birth mother refused to comply with the agency’s demand for it.  The pregnant teen eventually had to seek a late term abortion in New Jersey because the court proceeding and a failed first attempt to access women’s health services had dragged the process on long enough fall outside the 24 week limit on legal abortions in the State of Pennsylvania. Additionally, a contracted social worker admitted refusing to accompany the girl to the procedure because of her religious beliefs; the social worker was later terminated from her job.  Allegations surfaced about the DHS social worker’s ill treatment of the girl during home visits, which buoy the agency’s bad reputation as an fundamentally adversarial presence in poor neighborhoods that moms fear and loathe.  It’s an ugly situation all around, and these new allegations don’t bode well for the state of reform at an agency whose board of directors recently went on record saying it was undergoing major beneficial changes.

I haven’t done child welfare work, but I have counseled young single moms about abortions on the occasions when they have come to me as clients inquiring about having one.  It’s a sensitive subject, and a painful, emotionally charged decision for a young woman to make.  There are often powerfully conflicting forces at work on the young pregnant woman.  If her mother is an archetypal Philly church lady, you can bet she’s begging her daughter not to “kill her miracle.”  The woman may have to balance this pressure from family against the reality that having a second child at the age of 19 means she will have to drop out of Community College, practically guaranteeing lower future earning potential and dashing any hopes of starting a career.  In other cases, the woman may want the procedure, but have no way to pay for it; the state and feds don’t fund abortions and local resources are tough to come by.  I have encountered young women who live paycheck to paycheck and have had to make a decision between getting an abortion and paying the rent.  Talk about a rock and a hard place.

How have I counseled young women about the abortion choice?  I have never advocated for it, but have helped my clients sort through the facts of their lives in order to determine what the real impact of having a child (or another child) will be on them in the longterm.  How will having the baby effect their hopes and dreams?  What kind of income stream do they have now, and what kind of income stream can they expect in the future?   If she has the child, what does her life look like in a year, in five years, in ten more years?  If she has a religious affiliation, especially if she’s getting pressure to keep the child from her family, what does the religious prohibition on abortion mean to her, personally, divorced from her mother or pastor’s opinion?  Can she have an abortion and maintain a relationship with her family and church?  If not, how will she get on in life without these critical supports?  If she decides against the procedure, does she have a plan in place to provide for the child?

Ultimately, the decision is hers, and hers alone, to make.  In these situations I have always provided lists of resources that the pregnant woman can utilize to seek the service safely and legally if she decides to have the abortion.  Once the decision is made, if resources are a question, I have also provided contact information for agencies that may be able to help the woman find funding for the procedure. I think this is fairly good model for compassionate abortion counseling.  As a social worker I’m there to be supportive, allow the woman to make her own informed choice, and provide information about accessing resources if she chooses to go forward with the procedure.

The case at hand in the Daily News article is different because it involves a pregnant juvenile, and we don’t know much about her because the details of her case are confidential.  This has been an ongoing handicap for DHS in battling these attack stories; they can’t fight back because they are hamstrung by HIPAA privacy protections.  Going to a judge to get a court order for an abortion sounds horrifying and unjustifiable to many, but the fact is that we don’t know why DHS decided to pursue this extreme action.  There is a distinct possibility that the girl in question suffers from profound developmental or emotional disorders and is completely incapable of providing even a minimal level of care for the child.  There may be layers of dysfunction at work in the child’s natural extended family that make the likelihood of the juvenile mom ever getting any support other than from the state unlikely  — the pregnant girl already lives in foster care, herself.  Knowing that the only possible outcome in this situation would be immediate and permanent placement of the newborn in foster care, away from her birth mother, the state could conceivably advocate for this extreme intervention.

But, we’ll never know, because the files are rightly sealed and kept confidential. The undeniable problems I see in the story are the lack of urgency with which DHS proceeded with the intervention once it was decided on.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has tried to work collaboratively with the agency; swift and decisive action is not their forte.  Additionally, a social worker should totally know without even having to ask their supervisor that Medicaid does not cover abortions, so going to Planned Parenthood and handing over a medical card in this case was going to result in wasted precious time and effort that might result in the woman undergoing a more risky procedure.  Lastly, the DHS worker seemed to run roughshod over this very sensitive time in the young girl’s life, allegedly making threats against her if she refused to comply with the agency’s wishes.  This is the kind of typically bad social work DHS has long been known for, which it was supposedly taking drastic steps to improve.

But even more troubling to me is the fact that the social worker at their contractor agency refused to accompany the child to the procedure based on her own religious beliefs, stating, “They hired me to work in child protection, not to kill children.”  It seems like Rivera compelled the girl to consider carrying the child to term and then give it up for adoption, even going so far as to insure her that she would be able to keep the child if she carried it to term despite the fact that DHS made it clear that would not be an option. Social work is full people working professionally in tandem with what they feel is their religious duty to serve the less fortunate.  The dictates of the Bible often conflict with the modern realities of urban poverty work, and while I have happily worked side-by-side with many capable and religious social workers and faith-based agencies, I have also heard very troubling remarks on the job, for instance a social worker counseling a client to stop taking psychiatric medication because he “just needs more Jesus.”  This kind of questionable overlap between work and faith that impacts on-the-job service provision is par for the course in Philly’s highly religious social service world.

I would suggest that Marisol Rivera either change her occupation to better suit her religion, or at the very least not work for a faith-based agency that doesn’t contract with the State of Pennsylvania.  Any social worker, especially those working for agencies that draw on state funds, should not be engaging in their religious mission on the job.  Social workers using the profession as a way to financially subsidize their proselytizing efforts give social work a bad name.  And when the dictates of the state conflict with their religious beliefs, they shouldn’t attempt a work around on the sly, they should step aside and let another social worker enforce an order of the court.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *