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New mother: Hospital assumed I was a criminal

A detention deputy says that after uniformed co-workers visited, so did a social worker, who asked where she planned to send her baby while in jail.

photo
[Times photo by Bill Serne]
Janice Chestnut, who gave birth to Jeremiah Ruben Hunter Vangas on Oct. 9, has filed a discrimination complaint with St. Petersburg.

By LEONORA LaPETER
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 28, 2001
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ST. PETERSBURG -- Janice Chestnut sat in a Bayfront Medical Center hospital bed last October, exhausted and eager to visit her 3-day-old son in the nursery when two of her co-workers popped in to see her.

One held handcuffs and shackles. Both wore Pinellas County Sheriff's Office uniforms. They had just dropped off a Pinellas County Jail inmate at the hospital.

That visit started a series of events, Chestnut says, that would turn what was supposed to be a memorable event into a humiliating experience.

Hospital workers assumed Chestnut's co-workers had come to cart her to jail, the 33-year-old detention deputy said in a discrimination complaint filed with the city. Chestnut, a single black mother, said a Bayfront social worker asked her where she planned to send her baby while she was behind bars.

"Bayfront needs to know they shouldn't treat people like this," said Chestnut, who has worked as a detention deputy at the Pinellas County Jail for almost seven years. "I don't care what color you are. Crime comes in all races, not just the African-American race. They need to know you don't just jump to conclusions just because I'm a single black female."

Bayfront officials on Thursday would not discuss Chestnut's claim, citing patient confidentiality. But a hospital spokesperson, Cassandra Morrell, said the risk management department could not recall a similar complaint being filed during the past decade.

"It sounds like an extreme situation," said lawyer Darryl Rouson, who will represent Chestnut in her claim.

Jeremiah Ruben Hunter Vangas was born at 9:53 p.m. on Oct. 9. He was seven weeks early and weighed 4 pounds 7 1/2 ounces. He was born premature because his mother, Chestnut, had preeclampsia, a potentially dangerous condition that can occur in pregnant women and is characterized by high blood pressure.

Chestnut said some hospital workers treated her rudely when she arrived. Her doctor feared the baby was in danger because a fetal monitor could not find any activity, so Chestnut was about to undergo a C-section.

She was on the phone telling her sister, Chestnut said, when a nurse asked her, "Do you have Medicaid or no insurance?"

Chestnut pointed to paperwork she had just filled out that indicated she was insured by United Healthcare. She said the nurse did not apologize to her.

After her co-workers came to visit her three days later and the social worker assumed Chestnut was headed to jail, Chestnut said she became confused and upset. The social worker explained she had seen the officer with the handcuffs and shackles, Chestnut said.

Chestnut's family later called hospital supervisors to complain, and the social worker was directed to apologize, the complaint said.

"She didn't apologize nor did the nurses," the complaint says. "Then she stated that babies test positive for drugs and that she was only doing her job. I stated to her that I didn't wait 33 years to have my child to do any harm to him. . . . I stated to her I don't use drugs, then she left the room."

Chestnut said she filed a grievance with hospital officials but hasn't heard from them. So she went to Rouson, who told her she would have to file the complaint with the city's Community Affairs Office. Officials with that office were on vacation and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The city department, which gets more racial discrimination complaints than any other kind, has a contract with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate local discrimination complaints. The office will investigate Chestnut's complaint and could help negotiate a settlement depending on its finding.

Rouson said the office's finding is necessary before any lawsuit can be filed.

Chestnut said she thinks Bayfront employees need diversity training.

Bayfront provides cultural diversity training for its 1,900 employees several times a year, but it's not required, Morrell said.

"As part of hiring practices, new team members have to understand our values, which are trust, respect, dignity, excellence and responsibility," she said. "So we basically practice those values when caring for our patients and their families. It reflects our commitment to the people we're caring for and our differences."

Chestnut has asked for $50,000 from the hospital on her complaint, but she said it's not about the money.

"I don't want anyone else treated that way," she said. "Any monetary won't erase the scars I received from this treatment."

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