A Resolution to the Chula Vista Courthouse Nursing in Public Harassment Incident

Last week I shared the story of Rebecca Garcia, a mother in San Diego who was harassed by a bailiff for nursing her baby at the Chula Vista courthouse.  Most of you were as appalled as I was.  How could a person who is supposed to uphold and enforce the law so egregiously BREAK a law… in a courthouse, none the less?

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As a reminder, the California Civil Code 43.3 states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.” 

After pondering over the best way to remedy this situation (a HUGE thanks to the Best for Babes staff for guiding us during this process and writing an article about this incident!!!), we decided to send letters to the executive officer of the San Diego County courthouse, as well as the presiding judge, requesting a meeting to discuss the incident. Within days we were informed by their office that the bailiff was not under their jurisdiction and that we would have to contact the sheriff’s department, which was his employing agency.  Ugh…. So, the process started again, this time sending a letter to the sheriff, requesting a meeting to remedy the situation.  On Tuesday, I contacted the sheriff’s department to follow-up and scheduled a meeting for today, Thursday, February 7, 2013.

For 2 LONG days, I have been percolating over what I would discuss in this meeting and trying to anticipate the reaction of the commander I would be meeting with.  At first, I was optimistic and somewhat excited to discuss ways for a positive resolution.  Then Rebecca informed me that she received a letter from the sheriff’s department that claimed NO responsibility for the incident, stated that Deputy Chong was just doing his job by upholding order in the courtroom, and NEVER offered an apology for Deputy Chong’s behavior or that she felt embarrassed or harassed during the incident.   

After reading the letter sent to Rebecca, I felt angry and defensive. Would the commander think I was making a mountain out of a mole hill?  Would he blame Rebecca for causing an unnecessary scene by breastfeeding her baby in the courtroom?   Would he ridicule me during this meeting and escort me out of his office?  How would I handle this situation without getting emotional?

As a side note, I should also probably mention that I am utterly petrified of confrontation.  This situation has completely taken me out of my comfort zone.  The thought of going in to speak with someone of authority on this issue gave me heart palpitations. At the same time, I knew that Rebecca and I could be agents for change and that breastfeeding mothers deserve the right to feed their babies without fear of persecution.   

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So here we go.  I decided to dress up for the occasion, with the hope that I would be taken seriously if I dressed the part.  These pants haven’t fit me since I worked at the San Diego Museum of Art 6 years ago….thanks, gluten-free diet!  I even put on makeup, too.  Per a recommendation of a colleague, I mapped out my three goals for the meeting so I could stay focused and in control.

My Three Goals:

  1. To have a positive resolution to the incident
  2. To add an education segment to the annual training program that discusses how to best protect the rights of a breastfeeding mother while protecting decorum in the courtroom.
  3. To have a formal, written apology sent to Rebecca by the sheriff’s department.

Well, I am pleased to announce that this meeting with Commander Fowler went better than I could have expected!  Not only was Commander Fowler gracious and empathetic, but he had already set into motion a mandatory training bulletin to be shared with all law enforcement staff, not just the deputies who work in the court.

Next week, each supervisor will share with his/her staff a bulletin that states California Civil Code 43.3, as well as the other California Lactation Accommodation laws.  Commander Fowler has asked for us to submit educational materials to be included in this bulletin, which we gladly accepted.  These materials will not only ensure that law enforcement personnel are made aware of the laws and protocols, but they will also highlight that the breastfeeding in public law doesn’t specify that a breastfeeding mother needs to cover up.  This information will also be used in all initial trainings for new employees.

Secondly, Commander Fowler has opened an investigation into the nursing in public harassment incident to further review Deputy Chong’s behavior and treatment of Rebecca Garcia.  He also expressed how sorry he was the Rebecca felt so humiliated the day of the incident and that he will do everything he can to make sure that a similar incident doesn’t happen again. 

It was such an incredible relief to be able to collaborate on a peaceful resolution to this horrible incident!  Thank you to everyone who offered emotional, moral, and educational support during this process!  We are one step closer to educating our community members about the rights that protect breastfeeding mothers and their babies. 

And this story is not over yet!

This past Monday, I met with Caridad Sanchez, the director of the San Diego and Imperial Counties for Barbara Boxer.  With her help, in the next few weeks, we hope to meet with a prominent California State Assemblyperson to discuss the possibility of sponsoring a bill to create an enforcement provision which would provide a penalty to those who harass women for breastfeeding in public. 

YOUR CALL TO ACTION:

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If you, or someone you know, has been harassed for breastfeeding in public, please call the Best for Babes Nursing in Public Harassment hotline.  The more stories they can collect, the better chance we have for legislators to stand behind a bill that creates an enforcement provision.  What good is a law that protects breastfeeding in public if there is no way to enforce it?