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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Elizabeth Catlin: Prosecuting a Midwife

      In the United States, only one percent of births are at home. They mostly involve Amish and Mennonite women who are assisted by midwives. In rural America there are 3,000 Certified Professional Midwife (CPM) practitioners whose certification credentials are recognized in 34 states.

     Elizabeth Catlin, a resident of Penn Yan, a small town in upstate New York's Yates County, was a CPM licensed midwife who over the years helped hundreds of Mennonite women give birth at home. (Yates County and the surrounding region is home to 700 Mennonite families. Elizabeth Catlin is not a Mennonite.)

     Fifty-four-year-old Elizabeth Catlin practiced in an area of New York that midwifery advocates call a "maternity care desert." In other words, her services were badly needed among this population of expectant mothers. Catlin's CPM license, however, was not recognized by the state. In New York, practitioners of midwifery have to be registered nurses with Master Degrees who were trained in state-approved midwifery programs. Elizabeth Catlin, therefore, did not possess the training and education to lawfully practice midwifery in the state.

     In 2018, a joint criminal investigation conducted by the New York State Police, The New York Education Department, and the Yates County District Attorney's Office concluded that Elizabeth Catlin had been practicing midwifery in New York without a license. The state issued an order for her to cease practicing midwifery.

     In December 2018, Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella charged Catlin with the unlawful practice of midwifery. Troopers with the New York State Police showed up at Catlin's house, and with her eight-year-old daughter looking on, placed the mother of 14 into handcuffs and hauled her off to jail.

    Because she couldn't afford to make her $15,000 bond, Catlin spent the night in the Yates County Jail. (Today, under New York State law, stalkers, robbers, child molesters and arsonists must be released from custody without bond.) The next day, members of the Mennonite community raised enough money for Catlin's release.

   The midwife's problems with the New York State bureaucracy and law enforcement were just beginning. On December 17, 2019, a Yates County Grand Jury issued a 51-page indictment charging Catlin with 95 felony counts related to her practice of midwifery in the state. No midwife in United States history has been charged with so many criminal counts.

     In addition to practicing without a license (in a bureaucratic nation a serious offense), Catlin was indicted on charges of identify theft and criminal possession of a forged instrument. But that wasn't the worst of it. Under District Attorney Todd Casella's prompting, the grand jury indicted Elizabeth Catlin on the charge of negligent homicide. This charge involved the death of an infant.

     In October 2018, while assisting a Mennonite woman in a home birth, Catlin called for an ambulance when the patient showed signs of birthing distress. The woman gave birth to the child at the F. F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua, New York. The infant was septic, and died six hours later while being transferred to the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York.

     If convicted of every count in the indictment, Elizabeth Catlin faced up to 473 years in prison. This in a state that has essentially legalized burglary, simple assault, major drug dealing, and shoplifting--a state loath to put criminals behind bars.

     On January 28, 2020, Elizabeth Catlin and her attorney, David Morabito, appeared in court for her arraignment where she was greeted by a group of 100 supporters that included Mennonite women she had helped, and several midwifery advocates. A handful of reporters and a documentary film crew were also present to witness the event.

     Following her not guilty plea, Judge John L. Cook, instead of setting bail on the negligent homicide charge, released the defendant on her own recognizance.

     Vicki Hadley, the President of Midwives of North America, said this about the Catlin case to an Internet news service: "What they're [the state of New York] trying to do, I guess, is make some kind of crazy example of this person--for what I'm not entirely sure. The fact that she is being indicted for criminal homicide is way over the top, since the baby died six hours after being in her care." Hadley called the New York State investigation and subsequent indictment a "witch hunt."

     Yates County District Attorney Todd Casella, in defending the state's actions against the beloved midwife, said the 95 felony charges against Catlin were merely "a sample of what we have evidence of." Prosecutor Casella, however, did not reveal the evidence supporting the charge of negligent homicide.

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