Taking care of her 'girls'

Inez Whitlow, founder of Chicks in Crisis, does whatever it takes to help pregnant women in need

By Cynthia Hubert - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, May 25, 2007

A ringing phone in the middle of the night jars Inez Whitlow awake.

"The contractions are hurting really bad," says a desperate voice on the hotline.

Within minutes, Whitlow is dressed and behind the wheel of her blue Ford Expedition, peeling out of her Elk Grove cul-de-sac and heading for the hospital. Heading out to hold the hand of "one of my girls," as she calls them.

The "girls" are almost universally scared, confused and unprepared for motherhood, not unlike Whitlow herself when she was young and pregnant.

For the past 10 years, Whitlow and her nonprofit group Chicks in Crisis have been shepherding these women through their unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.

Some of her clients are suburban teenagers. Some are older women in jail or prison. Some are homeless drug addicts. Whitlow's mission is to do everything possible to make sure they deliver healthy babies, and help them map out futures for their children.

On some days, that means hauling cans of food and other supplies to pregnant women who live in shelters, ramshackle houses or along the river. On others, it means taking them to medical appointments and court dates. Whitlow's car is packed with Huggies and baby wipes and blankets, just in case she encounters a mother in need. Her garage serves as a food pantry and clothing closet for her "chicks." More times than she can remember, she has given up her own bed to a pregnant woman and taken in a newborn baby awaiting adoption.

"I just help my girls through difficult times, and I try not to judge them," she says.

It's not always easy, especially when people take advantage of her generosity, demand more than their share or betray her trust. Whitlow has been lied to, ripped off, duped and threatened by some of the women she has clothed and fed and nurtured.

But when she presides over the birth of a healthy baby who has the promise of a bright future, she says, nothing else matters.

"I figured out my purpose real early in life," says Whitlow as she sits in a hospital waiting room one afternoon with a very pregnant client. "This is it."

Whitlow's purpose has nothing to do with politics or religion, nor is she pushing an anti-abortion agenda, she insists.

She is driven, she says, by nothing more than a love of children and a desire to keep as many of them as possible out of the foster care system.

"I absolutely hate foster care," she says, running a hand through her blonde hair. "Children need permanent homes. Period."

In Sacramento County alone, more than 4,000 children are in foster care at any given time, says Laurie Slothower of Child Protective Services. Many of them never will be placed in permanent homes, a fact that puts their futures at risk. Statistics show that children "emancipated" from foster care at age 18 are far more likely than their peers in stable homes to get into legal trouble, Slothower says.

CPS shares Whitlow's concerns about reducing the number of foster children, says Slothower. "It's true that it takes a village to raise a child, and we need all the help we can get. Government agencies can't do it all."

But the children most in need of foster homes are older kids, not babies, who are almost always adopted quickly, she says. If Whitlow wants to make a bigger impact, "she might do well to focus on kids ages 8 and older," Slothower says.

Whitlow says she's happy to help anyone in need.

She started Chicks in Crisis because she knows what it's like to be "pregnant and scared," she says.

Born and raised in Sacramento, she became pregnant while she was in high school and "got married in my prom dress," she says. She knows firsthand about poverty and welfare. One time, after her gas and electricity were shut off for lack of payment, "I yelled, 'I'm so tired of being a chick in crisis!'" That lament inspired the name of her organization.

Whitlow, who eventually got off welfare and went to school to become a paralegal, launched Chicks in Crisis 10 years ago. A divorced, 43-year-old mother of four adult children, she is currently parenting a 7-year-old boy whose biological mother is in prison.

Whitlow occasionally entertains visions of becoming a lawyer, she says. But right now, she is just too busy.

Chicks in Crisis serves about 100 women a month, as many as a dozen of whom are days or weeks from giving birth. Whitlow gets referrals from schools, jails, clinics and private agencies. The Chicks in Crisis hotline rings into Whitlow's home 24 hours a day with requests for supplies, transportation and emotional support. Regardless of her state of exhaustion, Whitlow is likely to answer her cell phone with a cheery "Hey, sweetie, what's up?"

"Inez is warm and caring and she gets things done," says Staci Bettis, who works for the Elk Grove School District and has referred pregnant students to Chicks in Crisis. "She doesn't put these girls on a waiting list. If they need help, she gives it to them right away. Her passion is to prevent babies from being left in Dumpsters, and she has saved so many of them."

Whitlow receives a fee when she assists lawyers or agencies with adoptions, she says, but lives hand to mouth. While she makes sure her "chicks" have safe havens, she sometimes falls behind in her rent and utility payments. High gas prices are "killing me right now," she says.

Chicks in Crisis accepts no government money, so a huge chunk of Whitlow's time is spent raising funds, planning events and scavenging for donations to cover expenses. "I've been trying to get a nap for 10 years," she jokes.

On a morning after she was up most of the night with a teen in labor, Whitlow is standing before a group of workers at a Women, Infants and Children office in south Sacramento. Her eyes are tired and puffy, but her enthusiasm is high.

"My moms, usually all they need is a chance," she tells the workers, who nod knowingly. "Just because you're pregnant doesn't mean you're a bad girl."

Whitlow describes her program and urges the workers to call her whenever they encounter someone who is pregnant and desperate. Her youngest client was 11 years old, she says. Her oldest was 44. "I start out by taking them out for a meal," she says, "and by the time we're done, we'll have a plan."

The plan, she says, revolves around whether the "chick" wants to parent her child or give her baby up for adoption. Whitlow has helped arrange "open" adoptions, in which the biological mother can choose the adoptive parents, for couples across the country. Several professional golfers are among those who have adopted babies with Whitlow's help.

"I called this lady named Inez Whitlow one day, and six weeks later I had our first child," says Jennifer Smith, who with her husband, pro golfer Jerry Smith, adopted daughters Olivia and Giavanna from Chicks in Crisis clients. "She did things right, and she made things easy."

Now the Smiths, who live in Arizona, help support Whitlow's organization by raising money on the PGA tour.

"Inez is one of my very best friends," Jennifer Smith says. "I talk to her every other day. She's my angel. She gave us a family."

Not all of Whitlow's clients move forward with adoption plans. Sometimes in the final hour, mothers decide they cannot give up their newborns. Whitlow respects their decisions regardless of their circumstances, she says.

"I do stress parental responsibility. I ask them, 'Do you realistically have the ability to raise this child?' But in the end it's up to them."

Liala Whitley was hardly prepared for mothering a baby when she met Whitlow for the first time nearly two years ago. "I had nothing," she said. "I was barely able to take care of myself." Whitley learned about Chicks in Crisis from a social worker.

The two women met for lunch the next day. Whitley ended up giving up her child for adoption, and nearly two years later she is pregnant again. Whitlow has been taking her to prenatal appointments and talking with her about her future. This time, Whitley is on more stable ground and considering keeping the baby.

"Inez is unconditional," Whitley says. "She's the best. If there ever was a hero in this world, she is it."

Whitlow's stories don't always have happy endings. She once saw CPS move in on a drug addict who had given birth to her 14th child. She has seen babies damaged by crack and alcohol. She has feared for the lives of infants whose mothers are in abusive relationships.

"I want to save the world, but I can't always do it," she says with a sigh. "Sometimes I just go home and cry."

At the moment, Whitlow is consumed with worry about a baby born into a volatile situation. The infant's mother wants to put him up for adoption, but the father, a teenage drug abuser, is fighting for custody. Whitlow is picking up the baby at a local hospital and will take him to a safe place until the custody matter is resolved.

With the help of a nursing student from Samuel Merritt College, which contracts with Whitlow to offer students community health experience, she fits a car seat into the back of her Expedition. From the trunk, she grabs a soft blue blanket decorated with dragonflies. She lowers the baby into the seat and straps him in.

"Hey little guy!" she says, leaning close to his face. "You look just like your mama!

"I can't wait to hug you and kiss you and give you all kinds of love," she says. "Let's go!"