Maternity homes still fill a need in Georgia

No longer just for unwed young women, the homes provide support and a safe place to welcome a new baby for women of all ages and fathers too

Credit: Natrice Miller

Credit: Natrice Miller

Maternity homes, once intended as a place for unmarried young women to give birth away from prying eyes, have modernized with the times, but say they still have a role to play.

Last year, Georgia legislators passed a new law to enable more maternity homes to open. Known as “Betsy’s Law, it was passed shortly before the state enacted strict new abortion laws, and was promoted by lawmakers as a way to support women and children.

Maternity homes existed in Georgia before Betsy’s Law, but the new law was written to make it easier to open homes, which sometimes were hindered by local occupancy rules. The law created a new category of homes intended for pregnant women 18 and older and their minor children for up to 18 months after a birth, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Despite the new law, the number of homes in the state remains low. Five new maternity homes have opened since Betsy’s Law passed, joining five homes previously licensed by the state. It’s not known how many other homes are operating that are not on the state’s list.

One of the new homes opened in the past year is the faith-based Living Hope residence in Cumming. It provides housing for up to six pregnant women or new mothers ages 18 and older. The mother and child can stay for up to 18 months after birth.

“We started because we recognized that there was a need for a safe, stable and loving environment for women who are struggling and pregnant,” said Executive Director Beth Hathorn. Founders considered opening a maternity home for younger mothers, she said, but saw a greater need among older adult women.

The Rev. Ralph Bell is executive director of Sheltering Grace Ministry, which operates The Mary Lane House in Marietta, which takes in women over age 21 who are pregnant and homeless. Bell said in May alone the three-bedroom home received 51 requests for help through its website.

“People don’t understand how many pregnant women are out there with no place to go,” Bell said.

Requests for help come from women of all ages, Bell said. “Maternity homes are no longer for the girl who made a mistake and her parents sent her off to have the baby.”

“You can see the need for Betsy’s Law. Betsy’s Law is going to make a huge difference.”

‘A chance to rest’

The Mary Lane House is currently home to two women and their babies. Operated by Sheltering Grace Ministry, the home is not registered or licensed with the state, but is currently under review to see if they meet the state’s criteria, according to DHS.

Women there learn life skills, workforce preparedness, and how to access services available to them, all while having a place to call home — even if it is temporary. The women can stay until six months after their baby is born.

Men aren’t allowed on the property and residents who experienced addiction must have completed or be in a recovery program.

Ashley Allen came to the Mary Lane House when she was 7½ months pregnant with her fifth child.

At times the 37-year-old, who has battled substance abuse, has been homeless. She has lived in a camper, stayed in hotels or a shelter, or with friends and relatives.

Her lack of regular housing led the state to take her three youngest children into protective custody. Her oldest child, a 19-year-old son, lives with his father.

To have a hope of keeping her new baby, Allen knew she would need stable housing. Now she and little Reign, who’s nearly four months old, both live at Sheltering Grace.

“Coming here gave me a chance to rest and be able to focus on future goals like getting stable housing for me and my children‚” said Allen as she sat on her bed holding a napping Reign.

Allen said she has worked with an advocate to learn about various programs that she’s eligible to receive, like housing vouchers. She hopes to soon return to her job in a retirement home and hopes that she might have her other young children, ages 2, 8, and 11, returned to her.

Allen said many women do not know maternity homes still exist. She didn’t.

“If they’re willing to really change their situation, they can always do that,” in places like Sheltering Grace, Allen said. “When you’re homeless, you’re worried every day about finding a place to sleep and eat and your basic needs. If you have a place to live and a place to eat, you can think about planning and goals and achieving your goals.”

Betsy’s Law

In Georgia, Betsy’s Law was created to make it easier for nonprofits to open maternal care homes, but it’s not clear if the demand for homes will rise in the wake of abortion bans and restrictions passed nationally and in Georgia since last year.

Betsy’s Law was passed in the 2022 legislative session, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. Then Georgia implemented a new, more restrictive abortion law on July 20, 2022.

When Governor Brian Kemp signed Betsy’s Law, he said it “will help us support Georgia mothers and their newborns by ensuring free housing and wraparound resources for pregnant and postpartum women in need are easy to come by and local regulations do not incumber these needed services.”

Open Arms in Albany accounts for four of the five new maternal care homes opened since Betsy’s Law passed. Its four apartments are part of a maternity group housing program for parents and their children, and each can each hold one family. Most housed there are women, but fathers who have custody of their children can live there as well, said Rosalynn Fowler Fliggins, associate executive director.

Whether maternity homes will see more mothers-to-be seeking refuge in a climate of stricter state anti-abortion laws is the big question now, said Ann Fessler, author of “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.”

“I know a lot of people are wondering ... do we need to prepare for an increase?” Fessler said. “And, of course, the people who are anti-abortion are really wanting to increase the number of maternity homes and offer more and more space for people.”

Andrea Trudden is vice president of communications and marketing for Ohio-based Heartbeat International, a faith-based national network of over 150 affiliated pregnancy resource centers, medical clinics and maternity homes that serves nearly 1,000 women annually.

Trudden said Heartbeat International operates one maternity home in Georgia. She doesn’t know if more needy mothers could arrive.

“Ultimately, we have to wait and see,” Trudden said. “It’s too soon to tell. We have not noticed an influx. We’ve definitely seen interest. ... There’s definitely more interest in pregnancy help and local organizations are looking to include housing services.”

Trudden said more pregnancy help centers are looking to expand services and possibly open maternity housing. She said, though, that interest is being driven by homelessness and inflation issues, more so than abortion restrictions.

“This was already in play before the Dobbs decision came out.”

An old idea meets modern needs

Maternity homes have been around at least since the 1800s in the United States.

The Florence Crittenton homes for unwed mothers were opened in the late 1800s by a wealthy New York businessman with the intent to reform “fallen women,” by preaching salvation and hope, according to a history of the organization on the Virginia Commonwealth University website.

Credit: HAND

Credit: HAND

Brian R. Corbin, Catholic Charities USA’s executive vice president for member services, said 28 out of 168 diocesan-based Catholic Charities agencies offer specific housing-related services for expectant mothers. The nonprofit has offered help to pregnant women at least since the turn of the century, he said.

The Living Vine Maternity Home in Savannah opened in 1996 and welcomes mothers-to-be of any age, but has had girls as young as 12 and women as old as 42. It was originally founded by a group in a local church that offered family support to expectant mothers.

The maternity home, interestingly enough, is located in a space once used as a Florence Crittenton Home for Girls. Its main mission is to take in women in crisis and prepare them for the future with life skills, job training and education, said Executive Director Karen Beasley.

These women are either homeless, abandoned, exploited, abused or have dealt with addiction with no stable place to live. Currently, five women and their babies live there and the staff fields several calls daily from women hoping to stay.

Beasley said the home was needed before Georgia’s abortion laws changed and still is.

“These mothers are choosing to keep their children,” said Beasley. “They are not keeping children because they don’t have the other option — that they can’t get an abortion. And we are here to help empower them and create a path for future success for them and their babies.”

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