HONOLULU >> A Honolulu homeless shelter won’t take action against a mother who is refusing to cover up while breastfeeding or use a private room, its executive director said Tuesday.
Karen Penley, 27, wants to nurse her 9-month-old son Nakana out in the open at the Institute for Human Services shelter, where she’s been living for about three weeks. Nakana, who is exclusively breast-fed, doesn’t tolerate being under a nursing cover, and the room the shelter provides is cramped and hot, Penley said.
Staff members asked her to cover up or nurse in private because of complaints from residents that she was too exposed, said executive director Connie Mitchell, who disputes that the room offered is hot and small.
“In Hawaii, there’s an expectation that you are discreet,” Mitchell said. But she couldn’t describe the level of exposure because she hasn’t seen Penley nursing.
Penley said she nurses by pulling her shirt up or pulling her straps down, depending on what she’s wearing.
“I never take my shirt off,” she said. “I’ve never had the nipple exposed or anything like that.”
After a staff member told her to cover up while she was nursing Nakana on steps outside the shelter, Penley decided to contact Hawaii News Now because she felt the shelter was violating her right to breastfeed.
“I’ve always known the law about breastfeeding, and it’s against the law to refuse services to you if you’re breastfeeding,” she said.
Hawaii is among the 46 states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that have laws allowing breastfeeding in any public or private location, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Hawaii’s law says it’s discriminatory “to deny, or attempt to deny, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodation of a place of public accommodations to a woman because she is breastfeeding a child.”
There are no laws requiring nursing mothers to cover up, said Debrah Trankel, a nurse and lactation consultant at The Queen’s Medical Center.
Mitchell said the private, nonprofit shelter and social services agency isn’t violating the law because the organization is not stopping anyone from breastfeeding.
“We have nothing against breastfeeding,” she said. “It’s not about rights. It’s about responsibility to help the whole community feel they are in a safe place and comfortable place.”
Penley said that she just wants to nurse in way that’s comfortable for her child. “For me, it’s all about his needs. Not me, not the people around me,” she said. “Their comfort is not my problem.”
Refusing to hide her nursing is also about helping other mothers in shelters feel comfortable about breastfeeding, she said.
“Breastfeeding is more successful when a mother can comfortably nurse her baby in a safe environment,” La Leche League for Northern California and Hawaii, an international organization that provides breastfeeding support, said in a statement responding to Penley’s situation. “We encourage continuing conversations resulting in a mother feeling supported with compassion and respect in whatever unique situation she finds herself.”
Penley won’t be asked to leave for not abiding by the shelter’s request, Mitchell said.
“If she wants to breastfeed, she can breastfeed,” she said. “We’re not kicking her out.”