A Honolulu homeless shelter won’t take action against a mother who is refusing to cover up while breast-feeding 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 breast-feed.
"I’ve always known the law about breast-feeding, and it’s against the law to refuse services to you if you’re breast-feeding," she said.
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 breast-feeding 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 breast-feeding.
"We have nothing against breast-feeding," 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 she just wants to nurse in a 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."
Penley won’t be asked to leave for not abiding by the shelter’s request, Mitchell said.
"If she wants to breast-feed, she can breast-feed," she said. "We’re not kicking her out."