LEWISTON — Laura Catevenis is single, has an associate degree and wants to go back to school.

The 23-year-old Lewiston woman was scheduled to sit through a 90-minute orientation to enroll in the state’s ASPIRE program Thursday morning at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Main Street office.

She was turned away when she brought her 8-week-old baby. Lydia breast-feeds every hour and won’t drink from a bottle.

Catevenis said DHHS officials told her no children allowed, no exceptions.

“I never assumed I’d get turned away for being a breast-feeding mom,” Catevenis said. “(To qualify for ASPIRE), either dad’s not in the picture or mom’s not in the picture. People work all day long. Who’s going to watch her, that you trust with a newborn?”

A DHHS spokeswoman said Thursday that’s the policy; the program demands parents’ full attention.

The co-chairwoman of the Maine State Breastfeeding Coalition said it’s a situation she’s heard of before, most recently with a mother of premature twins who was told she couldn’t bring them to her ASPIRE orientation when she arrived for class, only to find another mother, with a baby, allowed in the room when she showed up on the rescheduled day.

It’s frustrating, and Veronica Sweeney said she doesn’t think it’s right.

“The Maine state law says anywhere you and your baby have a right to be, public or private, you may breast-feed your baby,” Sweeney said. She wasn’t aware of a policy that didn’t allow children in certain areas at DHHS. “If there is, that needs to be changed. That would be the next step, if they have something written, because that to me is breaking the law.”

Catevenis received her associate degree in human services in 2010. She said she turned to the ASPIRE program for help going back to school to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maine at Augusta. She’d like to work with children with autism. 

“I’m using this as an actual stepping stone, not just someone who’s going to be living off of it for the rest of my life,” she said.

Catevenis has already gotten state help with MaineCare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infants and Children’s nutrition program, which, she said, promotes breast-feeding. She’s been happy to do it.

“I love breast-feeding,” she said. “I love the bond that we get.”

She said she took her daughter with her to the DHHS office last week when she signed up to sit through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families orientation required for the ASPIRE program and mentioned that she was breast-feeding. Nothing was said about keeping Lydia home until she opened a form letter from DHHS on Wednesday confirming the time and date. It included the line: “It is important for you to have child care and not bring children with you to this meeting.”

The letter read: “The group meeting will last about 90 minutes, followed by an appointment with your ASPIRE specialist.”

Catevenis said Lydia has been feeding every hour lately. “I was going to sit in the back of the room just in case I had to (nurse).” She’d brought a blanket to cover herself.

She had figured that by the time college classes start in January, Lydia would have had more time to get used to a bottle and would have started on solid food.

“She wouldn’t have disrupted the class,” Catevenis said. “I don’t really know what to do. I can understand (not bringing) older kids, but a breast-feeding mom, really?”

Sweeney, a nurse, said children can be disruptive, but there ought to be a distinction made between young children and “babies in arms that are breast-feeding.”

She also wanted some clarity.

“We need to do something about this, because there’s some mixed messages around this,” Sweeney said. “Why was it OK for one mom and not the other mom? Is it who you’re dealing with there?”

She said a lactation consultant talked to DHHS several years ago, when they heard about similar issues, and that seemed to go well. It might be time, she said, for another meeting and a “teachable moment.”

“If you feed them a bottle, especially young babies, you can be sabotaging the whole breast-feeding (experience),” Sweeney said. “I know in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, this would be a laughing moment to them. They’d be like, ‘What?'”

DHHS spokeswoman Sarah Grant said the orientation covers “critical information” such as child support and work compliance and “requires attendees to be attentive so they fully understand what will be expected of them while receiving TANF.”

Applicants can ask for special arrangements with their workers if they cannot find child care or when other special circumstances prevent them from attending without their children, Grant said via email.

“In this case, a one-on-one orientation is absolutely applicable, and will be scheduled at the client’s convenience,” she said.

Catevenis said when she asked to speak to a supervisor on Thursday morning, she wasn’t told any of that. Instead, it was: “Other breast-feeding moms have (sat through orientation), and you can do it, too.”

She’s made plans to try again next week. Lydia has been OK’d to sit in on the one-on-one with the ASPIRE counselor on Wednesday, but for the 90-minute orientation the next day, Catevenis’ mother has taken time off from work to watch the baby in the waiting room. 

“If she gets so hungry, I’m going to have to leave,” Catevenis said. “Then if I have to take the class and keep taking it and keep taking it to sit through it, I guess that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

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