WASHINGTON — A new innovative weapon in the fight against human trafficking and sex slavery is coming this year from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than a year after abortion politics led the Obama administration to kill federal funding for the Church’s top-rated outreach effort.
"We lost a contract, but we’ve not gone away," said Nathalie Lummert, special-programs director at the USCCB’s Office of Migrant and Refugee Services (MRS). "We’re taking a decade of experience and now are rolling out a new program that brings communities directly into the fight against human trafficking."
The new initiative of the U.S. bishops’ anti-trafficking program is "The Amistad Movement," a MRS program that puts the USCCB back in the fight against human trafficking in a major way.
Until 2011, the USCCB had directed a highly regarded, $15-million anti-trafficking program that networked victims with services offered by local interfaith groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services, as well as secular nonprofits.
The USCCB program came to a sudden halt, however, when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that "strong preference" would be given to groups that would refer all victims to family-planning services, including "the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care." A Washington Post investigation revealed senior HHS political appointees threw out the strong recommendations of an independent review board to renew the USCCB’s contract and disqualified the USCCB over its refusal to reimburse groups that referred victims for abortion and birth-control services.
Between 2006-2011, the USCCB’s MRS office had helped more than 2,700 victims and their family members. But the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against HHS in 2009, claiming the USCCB’s refusal to allow grant money to be spent on family-planning services and abortion was tantamount to imposing its religious views on government.
"While the Catholic bishops were entitled to their beliefs, freedom of religion does not mean imposing religious doctrines on others with the use of taxpayer dollars," said Sarah Wunsch, an ACLU staff attorney.
A federal judge agreed with the ACLU, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that decision in January. The court said the case became moot when HHS did not renew the USCCB’s contract and left unanswered the question of whether the USCCB would be eligible to manage such a program in the future.
New Educational Campaign
But USCCB officials said they have more flexibility to develop effective programs for trafficking victims now that they are cut loose from the strings that come with federal grants.
"We’re able to leverage more resources," Lummert said. "When you have a variety of private sources and private donors, you are really free to do what the Church wants to do."
The USCCB’s new educational campaign, The Amistad Movement, rolls out this year. Lummert explained the program reaches directly into at-risk urban and rural communities, where traffickers seek to blend their victims into the immigrant population. The program trains community leaders to identify victims, help rescue them and muster the support and resources they need.
"They will be empowered to identify trafficking in their community, rather than someone from the outside trying to identify it," Lummert said.
Nearly 17,000 men, women and children are trafficked from overseas each year, according to the USCCB Anti-Trafficking Program.
Lummert said one trafficking case the USCCB worked with involved an abandoned Guatemalan boy. His uncle trafficked him to the U.S. at age 12 to sell jewelry on the streets. The uncle kept moving the boy from city to city, until police caught up with them, but Lummert said that if individuals in the local Hispanic and Maya communities had known the red flags for trafficking, "perhaps they would have identified him earlier."
So far, the USCCB’s focus groups conducted in recent immigrant communities have received positive feedback for the Amistad program.
"They are excited that we are just coming in and training them, so they can become resources of help and support to their own community," said Hilary Chester, associate director of the MRS’ Anti-Trafficking Program.
The program will establish a permanent outreach presence in these communities, as trained leaders will have a new education curriculum and the know-how to train others. The hope is to create an expanding number of volunteers, who share the same language and culture of the victims, and so can help them navigate the system.
The first phase of the program begins this year and partners with parishes with vulnerable immigrant populations, such as indigenous Maya, recent Hispanic migrants and Haitians.
Chester said their research showed 70% of victims are trafficked into the U.S. for labor, while 30% are trafficked for sexual exploitation. About 8% of victims, she said, fall into both categories.
The USCCB still shares its expertise with other federal agencies working with human-trafficking victims and receives federal grants for smaller projects.
But the U.S. bishops’ new initiative is a departure from its previous five-year program for victims, where it disbursed $2.5-$3.5 million in grants per year that had been appropriated under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
The USCCB had created a national network of local faith-based and secular providers to assist victims and would award each provider a capped monthly stipend per victim served. Case managers would use the stipend to cover costs related to such needs as food, clothing, transportation, medical care, mental-health therapy, spiritual or pastoral resources and legal assistance.
"It was an eclectic network, with people having different expertise in areas that others did not," Chester said.
The USCCB stipulated that partner groups receiving the HHS grant could not use the money to pay for or make referrals for abortion, contraception and sterilization.
Steve Wagner, director of HHS anti-trafficking operations between 2003 and 2006, designed the program and said the USCCB was actually following HHS guidelines for giving victims assistance.
"If a person is liberated and trying to rebuild her life after exploitation, then abortion is not part of the treatment for the trauma of human trafficking. It would be inappropriate," Wagner said.
In May 2011, HHS reversed that policy and signaled that it wanted organizations administering the grant to refer victims to "family-planning services and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care."
Chester said the USCCB program made sure every trafficked female victim received full medical care and was seen by a gynecologist — but they couldn’t support abortion, contraception and sterilization.
The USCCB held out hope that its record of success would allow it to continue administering part of the grant program. It did not find out until Sept. 30, 2011, that HHS had excluded them from the next round of federal funding — 10 days before the contract expired.
"They knew we weren’t going to be awarded and just didn’t want to tell us," Chester said.
HHS announced contracts to the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, Heartland and Tapestri.
But Chester said the USCCB had to scramble to make sure that 300 open, active cases did not fall through the cracks in the rough transition.
‘Attack on Freedom’
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, said HHS had "unlawfully" prohibited the USCCB from competing for the program funded by his legislation.
"The trafficking laws I wrote were intended to provide services to victims by the best-qualified organizations," Smith said in a statement to the Register. "This was an attack [by HHS] on religious freedom and conscience and does a tragic disservice to trafficking victims."
Because HHS’ $4.5-million grant was given on the basis that the three main recipients would refer all victims for abortion and birth control, this included those local groups they subcontracted to work directly with victims. Groups unwilling to compromise their religious objections, such as Catholic Charities, were effectively forced out of the federal anti-trafficking program. Chester said 60% of the USCCB’s subcontractors were faith-based; of these, half were Catholic. Secular nonprofits comprised the rest.
Wagner, who runs the nonprofit Renewal Forum, said he never heard of a "specific individual case" where a rescued victim was pregnant and then requested abortion.
HHS spokesman Ken Wolfe told the Register in an email that HHS does not keep track of what specific reproductive-health services the federally funded organizations provide.
"[HHS] does compile the number of victims seeking reproductive health services, but we do not ask grantees to compile numbers by subcategories of reproductive-health services, such as prenatal care, STD/STI testing or treatment, etc.," Wolfe said.
Wagner charged that the HHS made a "profoundly cynical" decision to destroy the USCCB’s network of faith-based providers over abortion — the exact opposite of what he designed the program to do.
"We should be proliferating the number of organizations to serve victims, not forcing them out of the field by creating this conscience impediment," Wagner said. "It doesn’t make sense that everyone serving the victim has to make referrals for abortion."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.