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Jacqueline Fasset

TALKING WITH JACQUELINE FASSET 

Jacqueline Fasset is a remarkable woman. Outgoing and outspoken, she has adamantly stood her ground on the principles she adheres to. Now retired, Ms. Fasset has seen the social work profession go through the struggles connected with civil rights, women’s and adolescent rights, AIDS, and managed care. Through it all she has remained strong and determined, as well as warm and caring. In her long and prolific career, Jacqueline Fasset has traveled around the country advocating for the rights of adolescents and people in general. 

“If you’re going to respect the right of an individual to make choices, then have the responsibility to make sure that they have all the information that they need.”

 Her helping career began at Crownsville State Hospital.

“The way I kind of fell into social work was when I finished college, there was an ad in the paper for somebody who could pass an exam and had a driver’s license. I needed a job, so I took the exam and I passed it. Then I got a call from Crownsville State Hospital. The director of social work was looking for staff. I thought this woman has got to be out of her mind. I don’t even know what she’s talking about, and then she hired me.”

This was the beginning of her commitment to improving services for adolescents.

“When I was working in the state mental hospital, we had a unit for adolescents. Which was a blessing, because up to that point they got mixed in the units with adults. I went to graduate school, at the University of Pennsylvania, and I did my thesis on a single case. I remember working with this young man. I decided that this is what I really wanted to do. It was very disturbing to me to see the teenagers who were coming into the state mental hospitals. Many of them didn’t seem mentally ill, but just having been victimized by certain circumstances. I think it was after that, they decided to open up a unit for teenagers and I wanted that unit.

They were getting ready to open it right after I was finishing graduate school. I applied for it and I didn’t get it and I was furious. I said to myself something has got to be done to keep teenagers out of the state mental hospital system. So I remember going to a social work chapter NASW meeting, and I ran into the Director of Social Work of Sinai Hospital. I thought maybe there’s something I can do outside the hospital to keep kids from coming in here. I was talking to him and he said we have a job at Sinai and we’re getting ready to start this adolescent family planning clinic. I was fascinated, I could see the potential, and I applied for that and I got that job. That’s when I left the state hospital. I remembered thinking to myself then, there is got to be something that you can do in the community to protect kids from coming into the state mental health system. The state mental health systems were just horrendous.”

By 1973 and the events of Roe v. Wade, Ms. Fasset was director of Social Work at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

“When I initially went to Sinai they had started one of the first, if not the first, family planning clinic for teenagers. They had set the program up, but things weren’t going well and then they decided to hire someone, and I went there. I had worked 10 years at a state mental hospital, and I went to Sinai to set up the adolescent family planning program. I went there maybe 66’, 68’, and then in 1970 the director of social work left. I applied for the job, and I stayed there until I retired.

The family planning clinic was set up with private funding, which was very good because it allowed us the flexibility in developing the policy and programs. It was relatively new to have family planning services available to adolescents, and we were operating the program for three years before the press discovered us, which was an advantage.”

The program was an innovative one.

“I worked full time in the program, so did the nurse and the secretary. One night a week, I think it was a Thursday,  we had a full clinic in operation, with pediatricians, and a psychologist, and doctors, and we had the flexibility of putting a full staff in there to meet with the girls. We did very well. They got complete physical and psychological work ups. We provided them with counseling services, and then we added to that an adolescent counseling service, so we could see some boys for counseling. We did fine until the federal government took the program over, and they decided that the program was too expensive.

 I was running all over the country. We did publish two papers. I think both of them appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. We even made a German newspaper. Somebody sent me a German newspaper, which we couldn’t read, about this birth control program that was giving birth control pills to teenagers. The law allowed us to do that. All they had to do was to come in and ask. They had to get permission, and later on they passed legislation that didn’t require permission.”

Jacqueline Fasset made her opinions about the rights of adolescents clear to both parents and co-workers.

“There are still certain feelings about this. I listen, even today, to some of the discussion about teenagers getting pregnant, and I hear the same arguments I heard back then. It just seems incredible to me that we haven’t moved. Some people haven’t moved in facing reality. It’s very hard for people to face the fact that sexual activity is the norm in many of our communities for teenagers.

How could you expect teenagers to make responsible choices, if they don’t have the appropriate information? I worked in that program until I became director of the department. Then I hired somebody to replace me. We kept that program going until the funds were just cut so badly you couldn’t maintain the program at the same level. For us it was irresponsible to just push pills at kids, without giving them a full physical evaluation, and counseling. That’s when the program shut down, and I couldn’t support that any other way.

I remember some people said to me well it’s too expensive to give these comprehensive physical evaluations to kids, when the goal is just to keep them from getting pregnant. I said I just couldn’t do it any other way. We held to that. I remember getting into big arguments with people who felt that the goal here is to prevent the pregnancy so you really didn’t need the counseling. The parents wanted to know well what about the ethics. I said you don’t start teaching ethics to kids when they get to be teenagers. That has to come early on, and if the community isn’t concerned enough to help parents to get to that early on they have to face this reality, and I didn’t bite my tongue about stuff, but they were really appalled.”

Developing trust with teen-aged clients was a critical first step.

“When you are offering counseling services to adolescents you have to immediately develop a trust relationship with them.If you don’t do it in the first five minutes you have blown it with teenagers because they are so perceptive.I remember seeing these two kids from this family.I always saw the kids first.I don’t care who came with them, I always saw the kids first, because one thing I figured out was if they are bringing these kids in its because they see them as being the problem.So if you see the parents first, the kids feel they don’t have a chance.I would never see a parent first.Well I remember these two kids.They were close in age and they were having problems and the kids were hysterical [laughing] and finally they said “hey, wait until our parents see you.Wait ’til they find out you are black.”They thought this was hysterical, and then I realized that when I would see the kids then send them out [of my office] I would ask for the parent or parents to be sent in.They would get to the door of my office and you could feel the hesitance…but once they came in and we started interacting we worked out OK.”

Jacqueline Fasset was also very conscious of women’s rights, especially the right to choose. She believed that Roe v. Wade was a needed policy, and it made a difference in the lives of many women.

“[Before Roe v. Wade] women who could afford to pay were having safe abortions in hospitals all over this country. Once you realized that, you recognize the fact that the choice was being denied to women who couldn’t afford it. I also learned right in this community there were physicians who were available, who would do it outside the hospital. There was a whole network. I found out from talking to some physicians. There was a whole network of physicians on the east coast who were available to women who wanted to interrupt a pregnancy.

It wasn’t as though the law was enabling something new. This has been going on for a long time legally. Depending on the woman and her circumstances, if a woman went to see a physician locally to have a pregnancy interrupted, and didn’t want to do it locally, the physician could refer her to somebody he knew in Philadelphia or somewhere else. I always believed the whole issue around federal legislation had to do with making it possible for women who had limited means. Because what I knew was that women who could afford it, or who could gather resources, could always have the pregnancy interrupted. That was not new. I knew people who were having pregnancies interrupted illegally and so that was at great risk health wise. Women who had resources were not having unsafe abortions.

The thing that has consistently been a problem, the feeling that a lot of people had, was that they should not use public funds. That’s always been and still is an issue. I don’t think once they passed Roe v. Wade, and there was no legal barrier to poor women, I don’t think there were as many women dying as a result of those illegal abortions. There were some really ruthless people out here who were taking advantage of women, who for what ever reason had to go in a back alley or find somebody who will do it. There were people who were not physicians who were doing it.”

Jacqueline Fasset views her career.

“I thoroughly have enjoyed it. I have no regrets, and I had a very full professional life with professional organizations, because I served on national boards [of directors] of the Council on Social Work Education, NASW, and the Society for Hospital Social Work Directors. At one time I was on all three national boards at the same time so I was running all over the country having a good time. I enjoyed doing that kind of thing…I remember when I was offered the opportunity to go into supervision and I said ‘no, I don’t want to be a supervisor, I get too much out of really helping people.’ Then I made a discovery, and really it was an indictment of the way I had personally experienced supervision in social work, that you could work with staff and get the same benefits helping them to help other people that you got out of doing it directly… I thoroughly enjoyed working with my students and my staff… I am so proud of all of them.”

Ms Fasset was interviewed by  Ms. Odali Melendez-Harrison