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In Circuit Court, Baltimore's family friendliness falls flat

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In May, Time magazine made a splash featuring an attractive woman breastfeeding her three year-old on its cover. The accompanying article suggested that battles over parenting decisions, including how long to breastfeed a child, pit mothers against one another. A reality show featuring lurid skirmishes between "extreme parents" is now rumored to be in production.

Truth is, the battle over breastmilk happens in much less extreme scenarios and in more insidious ways each and every day for women in this city. The Baltimore City Circuit Court, for example, does not recognize breastmilk as a viable way to feed a child. At least, not if that child is over 12 months old.

I recently tried to reschedule jury duty because my daughter still breastfeeds. At the time, she was two days past her first birthday. The policy, according to the clerk I spoke with, is that any woman with a child under one may postpone service due to breastfeeding by producing the child's birth certificate. After that one-year mark, according to this clerk, the city no longer accepts breastfeeding as a reason to reschedule. What's more, I was told, the city does not offer a place for a woman to pump because breast pumping is not allowed during jury service.

In the nine hours of jury duty, I would have to express milk about three times. The physical repercussions of not expressing are no joke, including debilitating infections like mastitis. I couldn't imagine what would happen if I got picked for a multi-day trial. If I couldn't postpone, I would have to pump, so I persisted. Finally, after consulting a manager, I was told that I could reschedule my service only if my pediatrician wrote a letter to the Circuit Court stating that my child "required breastmilk."

I have since heard horror stories from other mothers related to breastfeeding and Baltimore City jury duty. Each told me they felt belittled by Circuit Court clerks for using breastfeeding as a reason to reschedule, and many were given conflicting information about their right to delay service. To be clear, these women, like me, were not trying to get out of jury duty, rather they hoped to serve after the child weaned in light of the fact that the court offers no option to pump.

The Baltimore City Circuit Court policy undermines two key civic endeavors. First, there is the mayor's desire to promote healthy and affordable eating, including encouraging breastfeeding as a child's best first food. The Baltimore City Health Department tells women that, "breastfed babies are healthier babies" and encourages working moms to pump on the job in order to maintain a milk supply. Then there are the city's efforts to reverse the exodus of families with young children to the suburbs and to promote Baltimore as a family-friendly city.

So how do the suburbs treat breastfeeding moms when it comes to jury duty? Baltimore County provides private rooms for pumping. Montgomery County not only provides a private room at the courthouse, it also gives breastfeeding women the option of being taken off the jury list for several years. All you need to do is call the jury office and give them your juror number. No doctor's note. No birth certificate. No judgment. And no busy signal. I was able to reach both jury offices with one phone call, unlike the two weeks it took to get through to Baltimore's perennially busy jury line.

Gov.Martin O'Malleyjust proclaimed August to be Breastfeeding Month in Maryland, noting that breastfeeding is not only healthy but cost effective, saving families $1,500 a year. Mr. O'Malley encouraged all businesses in Maryland to support breastfeeding mothers and to allow them to continue breastfeeding "as long as they desire." Yet the city's judicial system has a policy that says a woman feeding a child in the most healthy and frugal of ways is not only unwarranted, but, by the tone of the court clerk I spoke to, indulgent and grotesque. A nursing woman must choose between her health and the health of her child or a $1,000 fine and 60 days in jail for failure to appear.

If Baltimore wants to keep families in a city with high property taxes and struggling public schools, if it truly means to set an example of healthy eating and family-friendly living, it should begin by supporting women and families within its own civic institutions.

Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a writer in Baltimore. Her email is eedickinson@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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