Three pregnant teenagers captured headlines when they escaped from the New Hope maternity home in Kanab, Utah in January. The teens hit the home’s director over the head with a frying pan, tied her up, and fled in her van. The incident brought national attention to maternity homes, which to some seem like the vestige of a bygone era.
In fact, maternity group homes are still with us, albeit in new forms. Some are publicly-funded social service programs that provide much-needed housing to homeless pregnant minors. Others are small private facilities nestled in communities all over the United States, often run according to what their proprietors describe as “Biblical principles.” Some group homes are allied with adoption agencies. Others, like the New Hope home bear a greater resemblance to expensive “boot camp” boarding schools than to social service agencies.
The anti-abortion movement has taken a major interest in maternity group homes as part of its commitment to support women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. As they often point out, a real choice means not just access to abortion, but support to follow through on a pregnancy.
When most people think of maternity homes, they envision the large institutions where young women would go to have their babies in secret and give them up for adoption.
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“Maternity group homes today are very different from the large institutional settings that held 30-50 women who went to have their babies in secret,” said Peggy Heartshorn, Heartbeat International, a network of over 1000 “pro-life pregnancy resource centers,” many of which have links to maternity group homes.
Heartshorn explained that a lot of those large older homes closed down after Roe v. Wade made abortion widely available. The maternity homes of old were heavily slanted towards adoption, whereas today’s mothers are more likely to enroll in a maternity home because they have chosen to parent, Heartshorn said.
Heartbeat International has identified over 300 maternity homes nationwide, but president Heartshorn says she wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many are actually out there.
In place of the large institutions, a variety of public and private financing for pregnant and parenting teens has arisen. A few states administer their own maternity group homes.
Today’s maternity group homes tend to be much smaller, typically housing between six and ten clients at a time. Some just house women for the duration of the pregnancy, others allow mothers to continue living in the home after the baby is born. Homes are more likely to offer heavily structured programs that may include life skills, high school coursework, and Lamaze classes.
Maternity homes got a second look from federal legislators during the welfare reforms of the 1990s. Under the new rules, pregnant teens ceased to be eligible for welfare benefits unless they were living with their families. So-called “second chance” homes were created to provide a stable living environment for pregnant minors who couldn’t live with their families.
In 2003 Congress changed the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act legislation to make maternity group homes eligible for funding through the Transitional Living Program for homeless youth. Approximately $10 million per year is set aside for maternity group homes. Of the transitional living programs funded in 2004 and 2005, 19 identified themselves as maternity group homes. Maternity homes are also eligible for funding through the Administration for Housing and Urban Development. Some homes receive support from state and local governments.
Private donations and user fees are critical sources of revenue for many homes, especially for the smaller religious maternity homes. Even homes that proudly refuse direct public funding apply for federal benefits for their clients, including food stamps and Medicaid.
Private boarding schools for pregnant teens may charge upwards of $2,500 per month in tuition.
One private maternity home owns a coffee shop where residents work, which it says provides job training for the clients. Another home owns a flower shop where clients work.
Maternity group homes vary widely in terms of admission criteria. Most publicly-funded programs serve teenagers and homeless women. Many private religious maternity homes exclusively serve adults. Some programs explicitly state that they do not cater to women who are fleeing domestic violence or struggling with substance abuse.
It is not uncommon for residents to have to commit in writing to carry their pregnancies to term.
The old adoption model isn’t dead yet. Some homes are arms of adoption agencies. Some facilities explicitly offer accommodations with the understanding that residents will give their babies up for adoption.
One program sums up its attitude on its website:
While no one is coerced or pressured to make an adoption plan for their baby, this is a home for women who are making that choice. Respect for this choice is expected and if you decide a parenting plan is your best option, we will work with you to find alternate housing arrangements.
The darker side of private religious maternity group homes is aggressive proselytizing coupled with house rules that treat clients like inmates.
These women are not ill, and they are not criminals—indeed, many programs stipulate these criteria as conditions of admission. Yet, many programs appear to be founded on the premise that these women need intensive “treatment” and counseling simply because they are unwed mothers.
In exchange for help, young women may have to accept controversial theological teachings. One Ohio-based home tells prospective residents: “Abortion is wrong. Harbor House will do everything possible within the law to prevent abortion,” and “Single-parenting does not fit God’s perfect plan for the family.”
The New Life Maternity Home in Warren, Ohio describes sexual purity as the “keystone” of its program. New Life is not the only program that includes abstinence-only sex education as part of its educational programming.
Many homes physically isolate the young women and limit their communications with friends and family. The underlying assumption is that an unwed mother needs to be taken out of the negative environment that led to her getting pregnant in the first place.
Harbor House does not allow residents to have telephone contact for 2 full weeks. The women are not allowed to have visitors for their first 3 weeks in the program. The staff reserves the right to read and confiscate mail without prior notice. The Alpha Omega Miracle Home in Florida doesn’t allow any phone calls or visits for the first month.
Many private maternity homes forbid residents to go off campus un-escorted.
One program has a blanket “no contact with males rule.” It is not uncommon for clients to be forbidden to interact with the fathers of their children while they are in the program. Some maternity homes allow the father to be present as a labor coach during delivery, but others expressly forbid it.
Many maternity group homes provide badly needed assistance to a vulnerable population. However, there is also reason to fear that some young women are being subjected to a variety of coercions under the guise of “choice.”