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Richmond moms who nurse in public still harassed despite 2015 law

RICHMOND, Va. -- Arielle Dodson's decision to breastfeed is about more than just providing food to her son.

“It is for comfort, so he can be close to me, it's his bonding thing to do, it's the way he gets comforted,” Dodson, 18, said while feeding her son Traveler.

Dodson's mother Arielle explained that her daughter's decision to nurse allowed her to connect with her son - a task that can be easier said than done for many parents.

“Because he is special needs, she doesn’t bond with him like other mothers would, so the breastfeeding has been especially important, because sometimes it's been the only way in which they were bonding,” Arielle’s mother Olivia Dodson explained.

But in August, Arielle said she was chastised by her supervisors for breastfeeding her 18-month-old son while she was at work.

“I had just clocked out, and my mom brought him in for a minute," Arielle explained. "I was waiting for some food, and my son did this thing where he really wanted to nurse, because I mean, I had been away from him for six hours."

While feeding him, Dodson told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers that her manager said she was making customers and coworkers uncomfortable and suggested she feed Traveler elsewhere. But Dodson did not own a car and felt that feeding her child in the bathroom was not an option.

“There’s only one stall in the bathroom and what am I supposed to do, sit on the toilet?" Dodson asked.

Dodson's story is not unique.

She is one of many mothers in the state who have experienced being shamed - or even threatened - for feeding their children in public.

In April 2017, Ashley Cooper said she was nursing her 8-month-old while they waited in line with her children to get their pictures taken with the Easter Bunny at Short Pump Town Center.

“Within seconds, a security guard came over to me and said 'you can’t do that out here you have to go into the nursing room,'" Cooper said.

Cooper managed to record the confrontation with the security guard in a video that has since gone viral.

From malls to airports, mothers across Virginia tell similar stories of being confronted for trying to feed their children.

In July, Stephanie Joyce told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers she was approached by police at Richmond International Airport while breastfeeding her baby.

“A security guard came up to me and said it was indecent exposure to be feeding him in the airport,” Joyce said.

But the security guard was incorrect.

In Virginia, a nursing mother cannot be charged with indecent exposure.

In 2015, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that stated “A mother may breastfeed in any place where the mother is lawfully present.”

But three years later, women in the Commonwealth are still being approached and told they should not nurse in public.

“We’ve had moms reach out to us that really felt like they were almost bullied, and being vulnerable, didn’t know how to speak up for their rights, these are just the ones who are speaking out,” Leslie Lytle, Executive Director of Nurture and a breastfeeding coalition #RVABreastfeeds, said.

“The ones you worry about are the ones that you don’t see,” Lytle said.

As explained by Lytle, there is a clear disconnect between the law and the people who enforcing it.

“You would hope that when the law changed there would be funding to go along with that to fund educating businesses - but that’s not always true,” said Lytle.

Instead, the Department of Health only steps in once a formal complaint has been made by a mother who was harassed for nursing in public.

“It is often left to agencies like VDH or nonprofits to do the education and public outreach, and it takes time and resources,” explained Lytle. “It is a law that is really about a cultural norm, cultural norms take time to change. We are working to try to make this more a normal part of life.”

Officials with VDH said the lack of funding put into educating people about this law is a nationwide problem, and encouraged all business owners to make sure their employees understand the breastfeeding law and that a nursing mom cannot be charged with indecent exposure.

VDH offers placards for businesses to put on display to show that they welcome and support breastfeeding mothers, as well as cards moms can carry that spell out their rights. Violators could be charged with a class 1 misdemeanor or find themselves in a civil lawsuit.

If you have questions or concerns about this law or feel you have been harassed, you can email the Virginia Department of Health.