Behind the sturdy doors at the end of the hallway at the Duval County Courthouse are the makings of an inviting apartment. There’s a kitchen and seating area. There’s a private bathroom and another room with trendy gray couches and sunny yellow pillows. There’s also a recliner, magazines and books.
This is the new Lactation Lounge, a place for mothers to express their breast milk or to nurse in private while working or visiting the courthouse.
Breastfeeding has been around since the dawn of well, mammals, but these lactation rooms are just starting to dot public landscapes, at least in Florida, after the 2010 signing of the Affordable Care Act. Among the provisions was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act that required an employer (of more than 50 workers) to provide a private place other than a bathroom for nursing mothers to express their milk. Jacksonville now joins Miami, Tampa and Orlando as courthouses that offer lactation rooms.
Jennifer Shoaf Richardson, president of the Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association and president-elect of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, was the individual behind the creation of Duval’s Lactation Lounge. Richardson was already aware of the nursing rooms in Miami and Tampa. But her interest really went into drive mode after seeing a letter to the editor in The Florida Bar News. It was from an Ormond Beach attorney, who was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t participate in jury service in Orlando after coming back from maternity leave because, at the time, the city did not have a place to express milk at the courthouse.
“I’m saddened by how far behind our judicial system is lagging in providing what is an expected benefit in many places of employment,” Melissa Burt DeVriese said in her letter.
DeVriese went on to explain how she looked forward to seeing the process of jury duty from the other side of the courtroom after being an attorney for the past decade. She said that when she went through the jury screening process, she learned there were no facilities at the federal courthouse for her to pump her breast milk and that there wasn’t even a bench to sit on the restroom.
“The best thing the judge could do was permit me to leave the courthouse on the short lunch break, walk a few blocks to the parking garage, pump in my car and then go through security to get back into the courtroom,” DeVriese wrote.
She said she had to get a letter from her doctor stating that she was medically unable to serve as a juror because she was lactating.
“I was embarrassed and disappointed that our profession made so little accommodation for something that is a natural part of life,” she wrote.
There is now a lactation room at the federal courthouse in Orlando. DeVries was thrilled to learn from a reporter that her story sparked the creation of the lactation room in Jacksonville.
“That’s nice,” she said.
Duval’s Lactation Lounge officially opened in early November. Within the first few weeks, six different women had been using the room. The room was made possible by the Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association’s Richardson and two other attorneys, Kayla Haines and Giselle Girones.
“That’s awesome,”said Richardson of the use in just a few weeks.
The lounge had previously been a break room for employees of the neighboring State Attorney’s Office. It was furnished through donations and at no cost to taxpayers.
The three women lauded Chief Judge Mark Mahon for his graciousness and willingness to make sure the project became a reality.
“This is just the courthouse doing the right thing,” Richardson said. “We didn’t have to make an issue about it. We just talked to the chief and he did the right thing.”
Haines said she heard about how a local attorney stopped breastfeeding well before she planned to because of not having a private place to express her milk at her workplace and at the courthouse.
“We don’t want any female attorneys, any judicial assistants, judges having to make that decision,” Haines said.
Officer Tarmika Dancy of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office courthouse security team won’t have to make that decision.
Dancy is expecting her first child in mid-December.
“When I heard about the lactation room, I thought, ‘Perfect,’ ” she said. “It’s exactly right for me.”
Since the 1990s, about half of all people entering law school are women. And breastfeeding — and the need to express milk from the breast when not feeding — is part of life, Richardson said. On top of that, plenty of new mothers come to the courthouse each day for a wide array of reasons — trials, hearings, paying fines, work. The room is open to them too.
“If we want mothers to try cases or be able to have their issues resolved in a courtroom, to serve on a jury, well they need to have this kind of space,” Richardson said.
So far the response has been positive, Girones said.
“It seems really weird that that this wasn’t available before, but I’m just really excited and happy that we were able to do this.”