Witness' Dismissal From Norwich Courtroom Brings Reminders About Breastfeeding Law

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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The rights of women to breastfeed wherever they happen to be, including in courthouses, is in the legal forefront once again, after a witness in a criminal case was told she couldn't nurse her baby in the Norwich state courthouse.

It was only two years ago that a similar incident was reported — a prospective juror in Rockville was told by courthouse staff to nurse "in her car."

That case prompted a new state policy requiring the Judicial Branch to give sensitivity training to some workers and provide private rooms for jurors who wish to nurse or pump breast milk. The policy was intended to help raise awareness.

Now, another apparent lapse of judgment by a court official with regard to the rights of nursing mothers has some asking whether more ought to be done. Danielle Gendron, 25, was at the Norwich court to testify as a witness. But instead, the Norwich mother was told the leave after she began breastfeeding her 3-month-old son, Maddox.

"I went to feed him and the [judicial] marshal, just, you know, she immediately just waved me out," Gendron told the New Haven Register. "That's never happened to me, so I wasn't sure she was speaking to me at first so I kind of looked around and she was like you know get out."

The incident drew the ire of Michelle Griswold, chairwoman of the Connecticut Breastfeeding Coalition, who contacted the Judicial Branch to remind court administrators of the law. In response to Griswold's calls and media coverage in several newspapers, Judicial Branch officials issued a statement to remind its staff members that women have the right to nurse in public areas.

"The Judicial Branch regrets the error and has taken corrective action," Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch said on Dec. 10, about a week after the breast feeding incident t was reported. "The judicial marshal who made the error, all judicial marshals in the New London Judicial District and all judicial marshals statewide have been reminded of state law regarding one's ability to breastfeed in all Judicial Branch courthouses and facilities."

Two Sets Of Laws

In recent years, advocates have been pushing for greater acceptance of public breastfeeding and more accommodations for lactating mothers. Connecticut is one of 45 states and the District of Columbia with laws allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Gendron said it is unreasonable to deny new mothers the right to feed their children in public.

"If we could all sit home with our babies 24/7 that would be great, but no one can do that and no one would be asked to leave anywhere if they were giving their baby a bottle," she said.

Kimberly Jacobsen, an attorney with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, said there are two sets of laws in the state regarding breastfeeding. The first involves employment law, and requires that employers provide breastfeeding mothers with a private space to nurse or extract breast milk.

The second set of laws "generally" gives mothers the right to breastfeed in public, Jacobson said. "If you want to breastfeed in the food court at the mall, there's not a lot anyone can do to stop you," she said.

So far, there is not much case law on the issue. "It's a relatively new area of the law, and there might be some exceptions to where a mother can breastfeed, but there's none written in the law." For instance, someone might argue that breastfeeding could pose a safety risk for police or corrections officers.

That was the case for a woman who was not permitted to nurse in a visiting area at a state prison a few years ago, Jacobsen said. The CHRO is representing the woman, who was denied the right to breastfeed at an administratve hearing. The case has been appealed to the Superior Court in New Britain.

A court fight on the issue was apparently not something the Judicial Branch wanted to get involved in. Hebert, the court spokeswoman, immediately admitted the court marshal was wrong. The marshal apologized to Gendron's sister after the incident, according to published reports.

Accomodations For Jurors

In addition to the apology, Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III sent out a document to high-ranking court administrative officials reminding them of the law. The memo is to be distributed to all Judicial Branch employees, Hebert said, adding, "The Judicial Branch recognizes the importance of one's right to breastfeed in a place that of public accomodation and expects all employees to be aware of the law."

Griswold, head of the Breastfeeding Coalition, was pleased that the Judicial Branch was taking the matter seriously. But at the same time, she said, the coalition was surprised to be dealing with another event so similar to the one that prompted the state law in the first place.

In 2011, Rachel Jackson was called for jury duty at the Superior Court in Rockville. She was certain the court would have a room or private area where she could pump her milk for her infant son. But when she called the courthouse, Jackson, who is now on the breastfeeding coalition's board, said she was shocked at what she heard.

"They said, there probably will be some place, but if not, you can pump in your car," she recalled in published reports. "This was a public building, so I would have thought there would be some accomodations."

That incident, and others like it, led to the change in the law. One component allows women who are breastfeeding to be excused from jury duty for one year after their child's birth. It also requires the Judicial Branch to provide information on its website about breastfeeding in courthouses. Griswold said she checked the website to see if that sort of information had been posted, and it had. But she would like to know what type of training is being done.

Court officials said current Jury Administrator Esther Harris provided training to her staff and court staff on issues regarding breastfeeding women who have been summoned for jury service, including reasonable accommodations that may be made. But there was apparently never more broad training that discussed how to handle breastfeeding courtroom spectators or witnesses. Court officials said beyond sending out the recent memo, there are no plans to add training sessions.

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