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A social worker's claim - that her refusal to schedule abortions for clients got her fired - puts the Public Defender's Office on the defensive

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, it seems, are all the rage at the Dade Public Defender's Office this year. In the past dozen months, four have been filed by miffed ex-employees, two of whom are black, the other two Cuban. Long-time staffers attribute the claims to the office's pressure-cooker atmosphere and the fact that staffers are appointed by Public Defender Bennett Brummer and can be fired without notice. But the most recent complaint, filed in July by social worker Maytee Albo, is distinct from the rest in that it is based on the curious contention that Albo was "required to perform duties which conflict with [her] religious beliefs." Specifically, Albo claims, she was ordered to facilitate abortions for indigent defendants.

Albo, who joined the staff in 1977 as a secretary, worked her way through graduate school, and became a social worker in 1984, was told on October 20 that she was being dismissed for insubordination and poor job performance. In August Executive Assistant C. David Weed had placed her on probation, after months of rocky relations with her colleagues and a series of memos from public defenders assailing her work. Perceiving the memos as the latest salvos in a long-running campaign to tarnish her reputation, Albo filed her EEOC complaint.

The Cuban-born Baptist hopes the commission's ongoing investigation will affirm her claim that in the eighteen months leading up to her dismissal, she was forced on several occasions to locate a provider of free or inexpensive abortions, make an appointment, and arrange transportation from jail for prisoners. "Each time, I went to David Weed and told him, `I don't think this is part of my responsibility as a social worker,'" Albo recalls. "It's not written in any of the job descriptions I've seen. His response was that my job was to do what the attorneys asked me to do."

Albo has compiled records that document three separate "social work referral" forms, all of which were filled out this year. Two instruct her to find facilities where defendants can have abortions, the third that she find out if funds are available for an abortion. Her handwritten notes detail her efforts to complete two of these referrals. Albo says she refused to accept the third and most recent referral. She was especially offended by the alleged orders that she carry out these tasks, she says, because of her own traumatic pregnancy, during which she miscarried one of her twins. Though she gave birth to a healthy girl in March of last year, the complicated pregnancy caused Albo to miss ten months of work.

Public Defender's Office staff members are reluctant to discuss client abortions, no doubt wary of the fanaticism that shrouds the issue, and the recent surge of conservatism that led Congress to pass a bill forbidding federally funded health-care clinics to discuss abortion, let alone provide the service. Executive Assistant Weed's only comment about Albo's complaint is to categorically deny all of her allegations. "Miss Albo is a disgruntled employee who was fired for just cause," he says.

Whatever the outcome of Albo's EEOC filing, the conflict raises broader questions about the state's responsibility to provide abortions for indigent defendants awaiting trial or serving time in jail. Dade's Department of Corrections, which oversees all county prisoners, adheres to a clear policy. "Corrections would arrange to have that taken care of only on medical advice," says Ron Bernstein, an assistant county attorney. "And that would be only if the woman was facing a life-threatening situation."

Otherwise, Bernstein explains, prisoners must go before a judge to seek a furlough from jail. As a defendant's legal advocate, the public defender usually assumes the task of formally requesting furloughs. The logistics of setting up the actual abortion procedure fall into the crowded category of unspecified duties assumed by the office. As one attorney puts it: "There may not be a hard-and-fast rule, but our social-services unit is set up specifically to assist the needs of our clients in any way necessary. Often that goes beyond legal advocacy. They need food stamps, we help them get food stamps. It's a matter of moral and ethical responsibility to the indigent." This is especially true, the attorney notes, when the women in question are HIV-positive, as was the case in one of Albo's documented referrals, or substance abusers, as was the case in the other two. Attorneys are also quick to note the sense of desperation that pervades the office, which deals with 70,000 defendants per year, with a social-work staff numbering a half-dozen.

Still, Albo says she's determined to make sure no other office worker who opposes abortion is forced to facilitate the procedure. In a second EEOC complaint filed two weeks ago, she alleges that her dismissal was carried out in retaliation for the complaint she filed in July. Executive assistant Weed, Albo goes on to allege, "accused [me] of insubordination when I told him it was against my spiritual beliefs to be involved in the scheduling of abortions." Albo vows this alleged violation of her rights will come back to haunt the office that fired her.

A day after lugging her files back to her Kendall home, Albo called the Christian Defense Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit corporation that is investigating her firing. Carolann Krzykowski, director of operations for the coalition, says if the group concludes that Albo's dismissal was in any way connected to her objection to setting up abortions, it will dispatch an "action alert" letter to its 8000 members nationwide, urging them to protest the conduct of Dade's Public Defender's Office.

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