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Maternity home's 100-year evolution

As clients face wider range of problems, St. Anne's in L.A. has become a multifaceted social service agency

May 13, 2008|James Ricci | Special to The Times

For a hundred years, they have been coming to St. Anne's, teenage girls whose adolescence was stolen by pregnancy. Unmarried, life on hold, they've taken their places in the long, historical queue to receive the comfort and care of a place named after the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Not that everything at the tidy, six-acre campus just west of downtown Los Angeles has remained constant, for the line of girls snakes through vastly different social eras. Much has changed from the days when getting prematurely pregnant typically meant being shuttered away, coming to term in secret and having one's infant quickly whisked away for adoption.

"The traditional maternity home services began to change in the late '80s and early '90s," said St. Anne's Chief Operating Officer Steven Gunther. "More and more women were staying in the community to have their babies, but at the same time we started getting calls regarding women who were in the foster care and juvenile justice systems."

Today's line-standers have been far more brutally battered by fate than the typically genteel girls of old; pregnancy is only one of the issues besetting them. Accordingly, St. Anne's has evolved from a traditional maternity home to a multifaceted social-service agency.

St. Anne's was established in 1908. Over the years, it migrated from Boyle Heights to Glendale to Highland Park to Venice to Hollywood before settling in on North Occidental Boulevard near Beverly Boulevard in 1938.

Until 1976, babies were born on the premises. Now the births take place at nearby hospitals.

The history of the place resonates with tales of school friends who later discover they were born at St. Anne's, with the stories of troubled girls who righted their lives and of babies brought into the world there who returned as adults to play important roles in the organization.

Cathie Capp came to live at St. Anne's as a pregnant 16-year-old in 1990. While waiting for her son to be born, she was inspired by the example of her social-worker counselor.

Capp got her bachelor's in social work from Cal State L.A., and now works in the agency's community service program, visiting client families in their homes. Her son Anthony is a college-bound 18-year-old.

One St. Anne's baby, Joyce Walter, born in 1944, now sits on the agency's board of directors. "To me, St. Anne's has always been a place of my heart, of my beginnings, and it was a good beginning."

To further cultivate such connections, the organization is staging a 100th anniversary reunion this summer for former mothers, babies and staffers.

These days the pregnant young women who come to St. Anne's rarely if ever give their babies up for adoption.

"These girls are looking to create their own families," said Gunther, "and maybe looking to replace something they never had."

Operating on an annual budget of $14 million, most of it from government grants and contracts, St. Anne's provides a residence for 35 pregnant girls, ages 13 to 18. With 100 students from the surrounding community, the residents attend the New Village Charter High School, which is on-site.

St. Anne's also provides two-year transitional housing on campus for 39 women, ages 18 to 24, who already have had their children. The women must work and/or attend college full time. Their children -- there are 46 of them -- attend the organization's on-site early learning center, along with about 50 children from the neighborhood.

The girls who come to St. Anne's these days "are tough kids, some of whom have difficulty dealing with authority," said St. Anne's Chief Executive Tony Walker. Each year about a dozen are asked to leave.

The nature of the girls -- many have been abused, shunted from home to home, and associated with street gangs -- sometimes strains the patience of the older women who have been longtime volunteers at St. Anne's.

"We have many 60-, 70-, 80-year-old women and they have been aware of the shift," Walker said.

"They're not always comfortable with it, but they keep coming back to help . . . they can't turn their backs on them, even though some of the kids are not seen as appreciative as the girls of the past."

Plenty of examples exist, however, of girls who have escaped their pasts and whose lives have blossomed with promise.

At age 12, Shaquinta Drummer of Compton was placed in a North Hills group home, from which she ran away.

Adrift in Pacoima, she was raped by an older male and had to be hospitalized for a week before she could be returned to the group home.

At 14, she was moved to a foster home in Long Beach, then returned to the group home, before her grandmother gained custody two years later.

In constant trouble at Compton High School and learning that she was pregnant, Drummer managed to get a spot at St. Anne's. There she had an epiphany.

"I realized, I'm pregnant and I can't just run away," she said. "I'm an adult, and I want to set a good example for my baby.

Her son, Christian, was born Nov. 7, 2006. Now 20, Drummer lives with him in St. Anne's transitional housing apartment building.

She is studying for an associate degree in psychology at Los Angeles Community College, and working full-time on a two-year-internship at the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services.

Her goal is to get a bachelor's in social work and make a career of helping troubled young people.

"My grandmother and St. Anne's had a lot to do with me becoming a stronger woman, more independent and mature. When I think back on how I used to be, I'm, like, 'Wow. I did that? I behaved like that?' I thank God St. Anne's and my grandmother were here to help me."

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