They came from across the country — and from both political parties — with a shared goal: no other mother should have to lose a child as they had.
Ali Dodd, Amber Scorah, Kathryn Martin, and Adrienne Kromer all lost their babies within hours or days of putting them in day care. All four women felt they had been forced to go back to work too soon because of the lack of universal paid family leave in the U.S. According to the Department of Labor, only 12% of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employers.
“Case after case after case just show [that] moms and parents need to be home for more time, so they can just do the research on child care," Martin told Refinery29. "When you have six weeks of maternity leave, that’s not enough time. It’s really not."
In 2014, Martin’s 3-month-old daughter, Kellie Rynn, was found unresponsive in her crib at the home of a childcare provider. The daycare operator, whom Martin had researched and checked references, was legally allowed to care for six children at a time. But when paramedics responded to the call about Kellie Rynn, they found 23 children there, some kept in a room with a loaded handgun, according to prosecutors. Since her daughter’s death, Martin has dedicated her life to speaking out.
"I’m still her mother. I still parent her, just in a different way. A mother of an angel is just a different kind of mother,” Martin said. “You’ve got to stand up and use your voice, and I use her voice as my own.”
The 28-year-old traveled from South Carolina to New York to make her voice heard outside of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters on Monday.
Together, the four mothers delivered a Change.org petition asking both candidates to make paid family leave a priority in their first 100 days in office. Started by Dodd and Scorah, the petition has received more than 135,000 signatures so far. Scorah’s son, Karl, died on her first day work back at work in New York.
“Like many many other mothers in America who face the end of their scraped-together maternity leaves, I felt it was too soon to go back to work,” Scorah told Refinery29. “Of course, when I came back to the day care a couple hours later that same morning to see my beautiful, healthy baby boy lying unconscious with blue lips, it was pure horror. There are no words to describe the agony of the loss of a child — and when it was the first time you had left them, that causes a million other layers of grief and pain onto the pain.”
Adrienne Kromer, who lost her daughter, McKenna, on her first day back at work this year, brought her older daughter with her. McKayla Randall had written both presidential candidates letters of her own, asking them to do something so that what happened to her baby sister would never happen again.
Each of these mothers and their supporters were determined to turn grief and pain into concrete proposals for action, which is why organizers said it was important to deliver their petition in person.
“The reality is they have had this campaign running for a couple months now and they haven’t gotten any responses from the candidates. And so when that happens, what do you do? You bring the campaign to the candidates,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter, Change.org’s communications director.
At Trump Tower, campaign staff declined to meet with the mothers, but did send someone down to receive the petition. At Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, Dodd and Scorah were able to meet with staffers. Neither Clinton nor Trump's campaigns commented publicly about the petition.
“Unfortunately, she was the only candidate that responded to us today, so we want to make sure that America knows what candidate is interested in engaging on paid family leave and who is willing to work towards it,” Dodd, a Republican, said after the meeting. “[Trump] better get himself on record, because every family in America is waiting to hear.”
Before coming to New York, Dodd, 33 and expecting a daughter, shared her story and her hopes for what the day would bring with Refinery29.
How did you feel as you were nearing the end of your maternity leave?
"I think that no mother wants to leave their baby. I had a connection with Shepard that I had never had with another newborn. He talked to me all day. He would just talk, talk, talk, he would talk back to me…I don’t know — he was just the most perfect baby. I think that probably moms who lose their kids think that.
"I was so grateful, and I think that I was so indebted to get back to work. So I felt like I had this extreme obligation, if that makes sense. But it literally tears a new mom in two when you have [this] extreme indebtedness to your work, who has given you this unpaid time off, and then you have this extreme responsibility of this new, small life.
"Coming off maternity leave is easy for no mother. Obviously, paid would make it less of a financial burden, but it’s really no different. So, it was my second Monday back to work and Shepard had his first runny nose. He wasn’t sick by any stretch of the imagination. But I took him to day care and he ended up being swaddled in a Velcro swaddle, put in another child’s car seat, completely unbuckled, put in another room on the floor, in a car seat, unsupervised for two hours. When the daycare owner went and checked on him, he was completely blue.
"He was such a strong, healthy baby. This shouldn’t have happened to him. So pretty shortly after, I started Shepard’s Watch, which is a foundation. I realized what had happened to my family, what happened to Shepard, wasn’t a singular event — that apparently it happened a lot. I wanted it to stop happening, at least around me.
"That was right around the time that Karl [Scorah's son] died. I thought, Oh my gosh, another mom like me. I was able to reach out to Amber through Twitter. I’m very lucky we have become fast friends. It was after talking to Amber that I realized that we had both done the exact same thing. We had both stayed home every day that we were allowed without losing our jobs or losing our benefits. We were forced to separate from our children and forced to use child care. We had no other option other than to go bankrupt or basically destroy our livelihoods. We thought that was what we were risking, but we didn’t know that, ultimately, what we were risking was our sons’ lives.
"Amber is a Democrat and I am a Republican, but this transcends any party divide. This isn’t about politics. This is about putting American families in this situation over and over, where their jobs are at risk, their insurance is at risk, their livelihoods are at risk, but ultimately, it’s their children’s lives that are at risk. We have to do something to change that."
How do you feel about the support your petition has received?
"I honestly haven’t met a family that doesn’t believe this is an issue. I think we’re scared to try something and do something terrible, but we have to fix it. We are going to have to be really brave and try something. I think there are more than 130,000 people [that] want to be brave with us. But let’s do something. We can’t just keep leaving these infants and these families hanging.
"Amber and I had a better situation than most. We could afford to be off. One, because I saved money, and two, because she had paid leave. But most mothers go back well before we did. 25% of them go back in two weeks.
"88% of people are like me, we have no access to paid leave. And this time — I am eight months pregnant now — I have no access."
How does it feel to be expecting again?
"I think it is terrifying. I have moments of happiness and joy, but it has been mostly terrifying because of the situation I faced. I can’t go back to work in 30 days. I can’t do this to my infant. I can’t do this to myself. Only a mother who is like me, who has stood in my shoes, who has lost a baby in day care, could even fathom what I have gone through in the last year and four months. And then to become pregnant again without planning to — I definitely did not do this to myself to prove a point.
"I swallowed my pride and am letting my parents help us, which is a horribly hard decision for me. Honestly, it’s embarrassing because I know most women don’t have that choice, either. I’m just lucky.
"I have to do more. I am 34 weeks pregnant and I’ll be trudging through New York. I don’t think we will get to talk to Trump or any of his staff — I wish we could, but I don’t think we’ll be able to. We just haven’t gotten any response. As a conservative, even if I don’t decide to vote for him, I'm just disappointed about that. But the Clinton campaign has been a lot nicer and agreed to accept our petition and meet with us afterwards. At least they’re willing to talk."
You’re conservative and a Republican. Are you happy with how Donald Trump has addressed the issue of paid family leave so far?
"As far as I know, he really hasn’t. He’s made a statement about [how] he felt like paid leave could be a benefit to businesses, because it makes them more competitive. And just a couple weeks ago, he talked about making child care more affordable by making it a tax deduction.
"I feel like he’s dipped his toes in the water, but I feel, so far, has been unwilling to really address the problem. Because even if you make child care affordable, we are still separating families at the height of infant death. We know most infants who die in the U.S. die between two and four months, which is when most moms go back to work. That’s why paid family leave is so important, to give us more time before separation, to keep our infants safe, and ultimately to change things so Amber and my stories aren’t repeated."
Why is it so important for you to deliver this petition in person to Trump and Clinton’s offices?
"I’m just doing everything I can. I’ve had a little bit of success in my state in terms of passing laws. I know relationships are made in person, so I couldn’t bear to do this by email or by telephone. I’m putting my mouth where my money is, I guess. There is just no substitute for personal interaction, and I think it’s incredibly important that I am here in person on Monday."
Why is it so important for you to honor Shepard’s memory in this way?
"Shepard will always be important to me. I will always love him. And these small things I am trying to do to create big change, we’re doing it not only to honor their lives, but to honor all of the other lives that [we] have lost, before and after. To make sure that it stops happening, or at the very least, that it happens less."
You’re expecting a baby girl. What’s your biggest hope for your daughter and for your family going forward?
"I say this a lot, maybe too much. But I do not want to look into my daughter’s eyes and say, I could have done something, but I chose not to. I could have tried to change paid family leave for you, but I chose not to. I decided it was too hard. I don’t want us to look in our kids’ eyes and think, We could have done something and chose not to. When I think of her, I think, I am doing this for her, so she doesn’t have to go through what I have gone through."
What’s your call to action for other women, for other moms, to get directly involved and help?
"Everyone can call their national and state representatives and send them an email and say, ‘I want this done and I wanted it done yesterday.’ We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t offer any kind of paid leave. Let’s figure out how we can catch up — even if they’re small steps, let’s start taking them. Figure out how to start taking them, and email me back with your ideas. We have to start holding people accountable.
"It’s very hard, sometimes, get involved in the political realm, because a lot of us feel so jaded, we feel like our voice doesn’t matter, we feel like our vote doesn’t count. We feel like those emails get deleted at the end of the week. But if we sit and do nothing, that’s the worst. We will find a way. I don’t think any of the efforts Amber or I have made over the last year are wasted…this is a family issue. Moms and dads should stand together and say, ‘Our babies deserve more. Our children deserve better. Let’s fix this.'"
Refinery29 covered the petition delivery live. Watch the full video, below:
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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was originally published at 9:36 a.m. on August 22, 2016.