The public health unit in Chatham-Kent, Ont., has been referring women, including those with unplanned pregnancies, to a private organization with connections to anti-abortion views, CBC News has learned.
CK Public Health has been listing Refuge as a community resource on its website for pregnant women in crisis or those seeking support. That reference was removed last week when CBC News began inquiring about the relationship.
But prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the health unit also stationed nurses inside Refuge where they met women for breastfeeding support clinics.
Candace Johnson, a professor of political science at the University of Guelph, says people should be alarmed by this. She called it “outrageous.”
Johnson researches issues related to abortion, reproductive rights and justice. She said it’s unacceptable and problematic for a public health unit to refer women, in any way, to an organization known to have anti-abortion connections.
“The problem is that it seems like there’s some degree of deception. It seems to be a referral to an agency that is going to provide some sort of unbiased information when that’s not the case,” she said. She also doubts whether an organization such as Refuge can be entirely neutral.
Nurse speaks out
Carolyn Martin, a nurse at CK Public Health for the last 20 years, feels the same. That’s why she’s speaking out.
Martin has worked mostly with teens over her 20 years with CK Public Health, and provides support to new and expectant mothers. She said she worries most about vulnerable teens referred to Refuge who may have an unplanned pregnancy and come from a low-income family or a marginalized group, and may not have adult support at home.
“What’s saddest about it is the kid who just doesn’t have an adult to say ‘here’s all your real options,'” said Martin.
Martin said she also questions why the health unit directed women to Refuge for breastfeeding support when CK Public Health had space at its building nearby.
“It just made me mad,” she said.
CK Public Health had a four-page document online that contained community resources for women. It listed Refuge as a resource for young moms, those experiencing a crisis or unexpected pregnancy, and women in need.
However, one day after CBC News began asking questions about the relationship, CK Public Health removed that document from its website.
In recent years, a billboard referencing Refuge popped up in Chatham-Kent equating abortion to murder with the photo of a newborn baby clearly displayed. The same billboard still stands near Dresden, but it now contains a website referencing Life in Motion.
“CK Public Health does not endorse all messaging put out by Refuge Chatham-Kent, nor do we have a shared mission or vision,” said Caress Lee Carpenter, public relations officer, in an emailed statement.
CK Public Health hasn’t responded to subsequent emails from CBC News.
‘We’re not doing a bait-and-switch here’
The director of client care at Refuge, BJ Kivell, said she personally takes a “pro-life” stance, but adds that doesn’t prevent her from telling pregnant women about all their options in an unbiased way.
“I don’t share a bias with them. I just specifically talk to them about what we offer, about what their options are, how we can support them going forward. That’s it,” said Kivell. “I feel like I just state the information in a caring way. They are not pressured to do anything.”
“We’re not doing a bait-and-switch here.”
On its website, Refuge said it offers free pregnancy supports for women and families.
Nurse files complaint
Martin filed an internal corporate complaint four years ago about CK Public Health’s relationship with Refuge, and it putting nurses inside the private organization.
She said her claim was dismissed and the arrangement continued until the beginning of the pandemic. when nurses were reassigned to help with COVID-19.
“The affiliation was so entrenched that you just feel like you’re going up against this behemoth,” said Martin. “I’ve been advocating with other nurses for four years and it’s almost like it made no difference.”
Last month, Martin says she filed a complaint with the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO). A CNO spokesperson couldn’t confirm whether any specific complaint was received or the status of any possible investigation.
The CNO has established a code of conduct as well as practice standards and guidelines, but neither specify where nurses may refer patients for care.
Under those rules, “nurses are expected to respect patients’ beliefs, values and goals, collaborate with patients, and ensure they do not impose their personal beliefs and biases on patients,” said CNO spokesperson Kristi Green.
Refuge’s anti-abortion connection
Refuge is connected to two other entities with anti-abortion sentiments.
A group known as Right to Life Kent first created Refuge. Kivell said Refuge relies entirely on community donations, which also come from area churches.
“Our organization Right to Life, we’re ‘pro-life,'” Kivell said. “When people come here to Refuge for support and help, we’re not taking a stance [on] anything. We’re just giving them the information and they’re able to make an informed decision.”
Another organization known as Life in Motion references Right to Life Kent in its email address and said donations can be made to that organization, which ultimately supports the Refuge pregnancy centre.
At the same time, Life in Motion’s website says it stands for “defending pro-life” and even claims “there is no protection for the unborn.”
Advocating for change has been hard, says nurse
Speaking up hasn’t been easy, Martin said. She’s felt bullied and harassed.
Her role as a public health nurse is focused on helping teens and young moms, but Martin claims she was forced to do training about safety related to bird dropping removal, using a jackhammer and digging trenches.
“Every demeaning [thing] that they could make me do, they tried to do,” she said.
Martin is a single mother and said her job is important to her family’s stability. But she said she’ll never stop advocating for young, vulnerable people in Chatham-Kent.
“Who’s going to stand up for the kids who are going to Refuge unknowingly?”
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