One family’s work to help open doors for pregnant South Auckland women who fall through “gaps” in the system.
Maddie* is two. When I arrive at the Grants on a Wednesday night just after 7.30pm, she had been safely put to bed in their South Auckland home. But within minutes, was back out and climbing onto her foster mother’s lap in the busy warmth of the kitchen.
Janine Grant described how Maddie’s mother is no longer in the position to look after her, so she now alternates living on their farm and with her birth mother. “Her mum’s actually picking her up tomorrow for a couple of days,” she says.
Janine and her husband, John, launched 0800 U CHOOSE on their Paparimu farm several years ago, a non-profit crisis pregnancy service which provides counseling and practical hands-on support for pregnant women who want to keep their babies, but aren’t sure how. New Zealand has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the OECD, and they wanted to help those in crisis pregnancy situations.
“It’s a very lonely situation, very hush-hush, when women can’t cope with pregnancy or are considering an abortion,” says Janine. “They’re not sure what to do, but shouldn’t feel like they’re going through their pregnancy alone.”
Their crisis pregnancy phone line offers everything from a listening ear and advice to accommodation and open adoption. As Janine writes in an open letter on her website,
“You might say this site is pro-life, and yes, we are for life – your life.”
With the noise of people bustling around the house, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Grant family had a houseful of visitors. However, with Maddie snuggled up close, Janine was quick to explain that the noise came from her own children and other foster children living on the property. “It’s almost their bedtime,” she says.
In a study on ‘being pregnant’ in 2007, Symthe and Payne found that one of the most important factors for pregnant women is having people around to help them. They write that,
“when a young women becomes pregnant she is thrown out of her known world….She must now come to accept a new experience of who she is becoming.”
These new experiences can include the shock of the news, facing societal judgments by peers and society, and being frightened of the future.
Although Smith and Payne focused on the importance of midwives, especially in terms of earning a girl’s trust, they noted that many of the girls had a sense that it was right to keep their baby, but needed the support to make it a practical reality.
This support could be from midwives, family and friends, or local pregnancy support organisations like 0800 U CHOOSE.
“There is a big gap in the system,” says Janine.”Mothers don’t know where to turn if they need support in keeping their baby. Some already have kids, other have had previous abortions. They don’t know what to do.”
Janine is quick to note that many of the women who ring her are also under pressure to have any abortion because of long-term financial problems.
“Every girl has a different situation – it might be a lack of support, a safe home or something entirely different,” she says. “But they worry about cost so much. They say ‘I can’t afford a baby’.”
Currently, pregnant New Zealand women can access a weekly benefit from WINZ, Work and Income New Zealand, designed for those are willing to work, but aren’t currently working due to sickness, injury or pregnancy. Dependent on their circumstances, they may also have access to state housing or a living allowance.
However, although the cost of pregnancy, labour and birth-care is largely free for New Zealand residents, a 2009 study commissioned by Inland Revenue estimated that the long-term cost of having and raising a child to 18 years is roughly $250,000 – excluding lost income and childcare costs. Considering the maximum rebate a woman can receive over this time from Working for Families is just under $85,000, with a lesser figure available for each subsequent child, the long-term costs are significant.
On their website, John and Janine offer several forms of long-term care to help negate the costs: accommodation through a home-stay or flat, both before and after the birth; permanent placement, where the child lives with the Grants until the birth mother’s circumstances change; or open adoption, available for situations where the mother is unable to keep her baby, but wishes to maintain an open relationship with him or her.
“With the right support, pregnancy and child-care doesn’t have to be costly,” says Janine. “We can care for the baby long-term, if that’s what’s needed – nobody should have to take the life of their baby because of money.”
A few years ago, however, the Grants discovered another gap in the system – immigrant mothers. After having several international students and low income earners ring their crisis pregnancy number, Janine discovered that the high pregnancy costs for international visitors means than abortion is often their only option.
Although the Ministry of Health states on their website that they will partially fund non-residents if the baby is found to be a New Zealand citizen by birth, this is essentially limited to children who have a parent from the Oceania region.
Instead, these mothers must find alternate ways to fund their pregnancy and child-care costs.
“Given it costs less than $1200 to have a medical or surgical abortion, it’s no wonder our abortion rate is so high,” says Janine. “We often sponsor these women and help with cheaper birth options – otherwise they can’t afford to keep their baby and stay in the country.
“Depending on where they come from, they can’t return home pregnant and unwed – they’ll become social outcasts or may be disowned in some cultures.”
As several teenage mothers began to bed their children down for the night, Janine introduced me to Anika*, another immigrant mother they recently sponsored – she’s living with them until she gets back on her feet.
“When her son became ill, she ended up with a $3,000 bill for a 3-night hospital stay,” Janine says. “$1,000 a day! Anika couldn’t afford it – and would have had to take out a loan if we hadn’t helped her.”
Janine then showed me around the sleep outs on the family’s farm. They rely on donations of money and bedding to build each additional flat, but have women and children living with them in the main farmhouse as well.
The completed flats are in use, and she says they fill up as fast as they’re built. Although small, they looked comfortable and warm. One mother greeted us warmly when we stopped by – she was watching TV, with her child sleeping nearby. Janine has helped her find work, alongside assistance with baby care and connecting with groups like Mainly Music.
“We charge for the sleep outs to help cover costs,” she says. “But only to the equivalent of their living allowance from WINZ. If the mother doesn’t qualify for an allowance though, then we’ll find other ways to cover the cost.”
As she says, “we want to help birth mothers develop their relationship with their child in whatever way possible. If they know there’s someone who can help them, a place their children can be looked after, then suddenly they have options available.”
As I turn to leave, Maddie sleepily waves goodbye, still clinging to Janine. She calls Janine her ‘other mother’, being adopted into the family. She’s grown from a quiet and withdrawn personalized into a happy and cuddly toddler. And she doesn’t know it yet, but meeting Janine has opened up new doors for her future.
*names changed to protect their identities.