As a young bride I worked as a social worker in a metropolitan ghetto. Stretched to the limits because of insufficient staffing, most of us were serving, as best we could, caseloads that far exceeded reasonable limits. I had 100 families on Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) as well as another 50 men (mostly alcoholics) who today would be called, simply, "homeless." At that time they collected what was called General Public Assistance.
My AFDC clients were mostly single mothers of color. A handful had husbands at home who were unable to work for one reason or another, but, mostly, they were women raising children alone.
It was frustrating work; my clients either couldn't or wouldn't help themselves, and most of them knew little or cared nothing about birth control. When I tried to educate them I was eventually called into the main office of my state's welfare department. One Irish-Catholic supervisor informed me that the "Catholic taxpayers of the state" were not paying my salary for me to disseminate "birth control information which they [didn't] believe in."
One of my clients stood out in my mind, however, because she was the only one of all these women who ever discussed the possibility of an abortion with me.
Her name was Juanita, and she was a dignified black woman raising three children after her husband left her for a younger woman from Canada. Her youngest child, an infant boy, was 14 years younger than his next youngest sibling, a girl named Lina. Young Lina was, apparently, so upset when the baby came that she began to act out and had become a troublesome runaway by the time Juanita became my client. The mother had to make almost daily trips to the neighborhood school because of Lina's truancy or discipline problems in the classroom when she did bother to show up.
The baby, Charles, was the product of a brief affair Juanita had had several years after her husband left her. She was mortified to tell me that story. She seemed embarrassed to have given in to the loneliness and frustration most women would have felt in her position. Ironically, Juanita had used birth control, but the method had failed, as sometimes happens.
The father of the baby had, predictably, disappeared, and now Juanita's meager budget was stretched beyond the federal poverty level, so she applied for AFDC benefits for the first time in her life. This was another source of shame for her, though she endured it with grace.
Her oldest child, Rosaria, made Juanita proud. She was a high school sophomore on a full scholarship at a local Catholic girls' school. She was a straight-A student and clearly headed for great things in her life. Unfortunately for Juanita, however, Charles' birth had also signaled an end to her relationship with Rosaria, and the girl had refused to speak to her mother since the pregnancy had been announced to the children.
Juanita said her daughter actually screamed at her, begging her to "get rid" of the baby she felt would ruin their lives. Lina never talked to her mother about terminating the pregnancy, but she did often express her wish that Charles had never been born.
Juanita had evaluated the possibility of an illegal abortion in those days, but rejected it as impossible. She had the baby, she said, not because of any moral objections to abortion but, frankly, because at that lonely time in her life she thought the comfort of a son she had never had would be good for all of them. She added that she had no money to pay for an abortion, or any way to arrange for the care of her other children while she went out-of-state for the surgery or healed at home from it. Besides, she would have been even more ashamed to tell anyone of her situation.
Instead of being a comfort, the birth of that child had put her on welfare and turned her two daughters against her.
Juanita forged ahead, nonetheless. She never looked back and she never complained about the choice she had made. I admired her for her conviction.
Eventually I moved on to other career challenges, but I never forgot Juanita and several other women I had met through AFDC. Many of them had lessons to teach me that would be invaluable to my work and my worldview in the future.
Almost two decades after I had last seen Juanita, I received a call one day from a high-ranking medical director of a federal program calling me as the director of Planned Parenthood. The person on the line was named "Dr. Rosaria Rogers," the same name given to that young and bright eldest daughter who built a wall of silence around Juanita. I took the call and spoke with this colleague about the business at hand. At the end of the conversation, I excused myself but said I couldn't help wondering if she knew an old "friend" of mine named Juanita Rogers from the city where I once lived.
There was a long silence and then the answer, "That was my mother. She died two years ago, I'm told."
The phrasing told me everything. They had never reconciled.
I said my goodbyes, hung up the phone and my thoughts raced to that strong lady so determined to have and raise the child she thought would make her life better. I wondered if that had been the case. At the very least, Juanita had had one child and lost another -- maybe two.
I never did know what happened to Lina, but the last time I read about her in the local paper she was being arrested in a city crack house on prostitution charges.
I never knew Charles.
Mary Ann Sorrentino is a columnist for the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, the Providence Phoenix and other newspapers. She was an Associated Press Award-winning radio talk host for 13 years and the executive director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island from 1977 to 1987.