CHARLESTON, SC — An old, brick house in Charleston’s Wagener Terrace district stands out from its genteel neighbors in several ways: It’s 14,000 square feet, built to house about 30 people and was built 90 years ago to shelter pregnant women.
It still does exactly that. Pregnant teenagers with few options, often escaping dangerous living conditions, come here to stay, give birth in a nearby hospital, and then return home to learn how to raise a child. In recent years, these girls have been as young as 12 years old. They are often victims of sexual abuse.
The building is a sign of a different era, and the nonprofit home’s mission harkens back to an earlier time, when sex outside of marriage was more stigmatized and access to birth control and abortion was harder to come by. Charleston has changed in dramatic ways this past century, but the home run by South Carolina’s Florence Crittenton program serves essentially the same purpose—one that may prove increasingly necessary later.Roe v. Wade the south
Across the region, recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion could lead to higher numbers of teenage pregnancies and could very well affect the demand for maternity homes like Charleston.
The number of such maternity homes in the United States is comparatively small. As contraception and abortion became widely available in the second half of the 20th century, demand for these rooms declined along with teenage birth rates, said Anne Fessler, who wrote the 2006 book “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who.” Children surrendered for adoption decades before Roe v. Wade.”
In South Carolina alone, more than 3,800 girls ages 10 to 17 gave birth in 1990, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control records. By 2020, this number had dropped to 784.
But that downward trend is likely to reverse in the wake of the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Decision last month. Hundreds of girls and women under the age of 20 received abortions in South Carolina in 2020. Outlawing the practice would increase the number of babies born to teenage mothers in the state — a decision under consideration by the South Carolina Legislature.
This judgment of the Supreme Court has raised many questions. Cheryl O’Donnell, executive director of the Florence Crittenton Organization in Charleston, still doesn’t have an answer. “Do we expect an increase in the number of people seeking our assistance?” asked O’Donnell. “And who do we think are going to be the people asking for our help?”
“In South Carolina, we are the only maternity group home that serves young women under the age of 18,” she added. “When you start looking at minors, we’re the only resource for them, and we serve the entire state. But obviously, we’re just a building.”
Nowadays, the house is usually not full. It can accommodate 31 clients, but on a recent afternoon in Charleston, O’Donnell said there were only eight teenagers living under Florence Crittenton’s roof — girls ages 15 to 18. An 18-year-old living there, he said, was expecting her second child soon.
In Greenville County, South Carolina, St. Clare’s Home, run by the Roman Catholic Church, can house six women and their children. But it is currently not full.
However, both the maternity homes are planning to expand residential services to other parts of the state
“There are a lot of women out there — a lot of women — who are not able to support themselves or their children,” said Valerie Baronkin, executive director of St. Clair Home. “We may be able to help those mothers.”
These homes may be exotic now, but maternity homes were much more common. “At its peak, there were about 200 maternity homes across the country,” Fessler said.
Most of them were run by three organizations: Florence Crittenton, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities. And they mostly served white women. In fact, after World War II, when these homes proliferated, relatively few offered any services to black teenagers.
The Charleston house traces its roots to 1897 when a young woman tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Cooper River. The woman survived, and the incident prompted a group of volunteers to open their homes to single, pregnant women and mothers in need.
The St. Margaret Street location, which opened in 1932, was modeled after the first Florence Crittenton home in New York City. The facility was founded in 1883 by Charles Crittenton, a businessman and missionary who named it after his daughter who died of scarlet fever at the age of 4. It was founded to serve “fallen women and wayward girls”.
Times have obviously changed since then. That’s why Fessler, for one, doesn’t expect demand for these homes to increase dramatically even after some states, particularly in the South, move toward making abortion illegal.
“In the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, the shame associated with a singleton pregnancy was intense,” Fessler said. “Women and girls were hidden so no one knew they were pregnant – and so they could give birth, surrender their child, and then go home with a cover story of caring for a sick aunt. It was basically a middle-class white phenomenon. “
That doesn’t happen anymore. Currently, 70% of the young women attending Charleston’s Florence Crittenton House are black. They generally do not seek refuge from stigma and they rarely give their children up for adoption. In fact, since O’Donnell arrived three years ago, it hasn’t happened once, he said.
Often — like Amaury Goss, who was 18 and pregnant when Florence came to live in Crittenton — these teenagers simply need a safe place to stay.
At the time, she was living with her father in Charleston but did not receive much support from him. The house they shared was infested with bedbugs. Goss was attending high school and working part time at Krispy Kreme, walking so much between home and work and school that she almost went into premature labor. During her second trimester, she had to undergo an emergency procedure to temporarily stitch her cervix shut.
At that time a former foster parent recommended Florence Crittenton’s home.
“It was perfect timing,” says Goss, now 21. “I almost lost my son.”
She gave birth and left the maternity home when her son was 2 months old. The Florence Crittenton Home in Charleston allows mothers to stay with their babies for up to two years after their birth.
Pregnant teens are more likely to be homeless than other teens, O’Donnell said. “They’re jumping from couch to couch in their — or their friends’ — homes, or they’re living in cars, or they’re living in some other place that’s not livable.”
About five years ago, the South Carolina Department of Social Services suddenly cut more than $300,000 in annual funding from the Charleston home, threatening a nearly $1 million annual budget. That money was recovered a year later. The state Legislature appropriated an additional $500,000 for the home this budget year.
That money will be used, in part, to expand access to housing for pregnant teens across the state. The Florence Crittenton organization in Charleston takes no official position on abortion, but will need more space at the home to accommodate the potential influx of clients.
“In the event that there is a huge surge in need, we are licensed to be able to accept 31 people, but it will need to double people and their children,” said O’Donnell. “That’s not really the environment we want to be able to provide them.”
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