HHS Defunds Bishops' Program

Why is a proven trafficking victims' assistance program run out of the U.S. bishops' conference being denied a federal grant? Some people are wondering if the fact that it refuses to dispense contraceptives has something to do with it.

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s decision to end funding for a Church program for trafficking victims has fueled concerns that “abortion politics” are at work.

“There seems to be a new unwritten reg at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It’s the ‘ABC Rule’: anybody but Catholics,” asserted Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which established an ambitious range of services for trafficking victims in 2006.

The HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and the American Civil Liberties Union have stressed that trafficking victims need access to the full range of “family planning” services, which the USCCB program won’t provide. But a former director of the HHS trafficking-victim assistance program contends that contraceptive services can facilitate coercive prostitution and won’t help victims.

The federal government’s decision to end its funding relationship with the Church agency is viewed by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, as just the latest effort to sideline Church agencies that prohibit the inclusion of family planning in social services or employee health benefits. The bishops have aggressively challenged an interim HHS rule requiring virtually all employer health-benefit programs to provide contraception services and sterilization.

Over the past five years, USCCB Migration and Refugee Services has directed a highly regarded trafficking victims’ program that tapped into a nationwide interfaith network, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Services, among other organizations.

The model program leveraged national, diocesan and parish networks to provide rapid assistance to migrant laborers forced to work on rural farms, as well as sex-trafficking victims lured into prostitution in urban areas. Since 2006, the government poured more than $15 million into the program, and the Church also provided $500,000 in additional funds.

On May 27, HHS announced plans for a new funding opportunity that altered the structure and criteria for successful grant proposals.

The new mechanism provided per-capita services and multiple grants, moving away from the model of one single contractor. And, for the first time, priority would be given to grantees that could provide “family-planning services and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

‘Hands Down the Best’

Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking services at the USCCB program, said the staff recognized that any future proposal would face a significant hurdle. But they were still optimistic, given the program’s strong track record.

“The funding announcement made it quite clear that those who provided these [family planning] services would get priority. But it also stated that we could not be turned down outright for not providing them,” said Chester.

“We knew we had to respond: In our proposal, we laid out which services we would not provide. We distinguished three service areas where we also would ask our local agency partners not to provide referrals: abortion, contraception and sterilizations,” she added.

On Sept. 30, the Church agency received an email notice that the government had rejected its proposal. Chester and other staff members were completing the paperwork for contracts that ended on Oct. 10 and preparing to facilitate the transfer of cases to three separate agencies that will take the place of the USCCB program.

Supporters of the U.S. bishops’ program contend that the government should respect the religious freedom of the Church agency to adhere to its faith-based mission. Further, a former director of the HHS trafficking-victim services program asserts that contraceptive services may actually facilitate coercive prostitution.

Steve Wagner, the director of the human-trafficking program at the Department of Health and Human Services from 2003-2006, argues that it’s counterproductive to provide family-planning services for victims of sex trafficking — the majority of whom are juveniles.

“A lot of sensible people would say that providing contraception to trafficking victims is sustaining prostitution,” said Wagner, who designed the groundbreaking initiative managed by the USCCB for the past five years.

He said it was important to distinguish between people who have been victims and those who remain under the control of traffickers.

“Victims being trafficked right now cannot provide informed consent to an abortion or a regime of contraception because they are under the control of a trafficker. If you do provide these services, all you are doing is perpetuating modern-day sex slavery,” charged Wagner.

Currently president of the Renewal Forum, a nonprofit working on the issue of human trafficking, Wagner described the USCCB program as “hands down the best agency working to assist victims of human trafficking in the U.S.”

“The prohibition on providing abortion and contraception services is entirely consistent with the law and with the needs of victims,” said Wagner.

He noted that the Hyde Amendment bans the federal funding of abortion services and the authorizing legislation prohibits any promotion of prostitution.

Smooth Transition?

Abortion advocates first signaled their opposition to the USCCB program two and half years ago, when the ACLU sued HHS for funding the Church program.

The suit, ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt, filed in the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts in Boston, sought to require federal regulators to disburse funds provided by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act “without the imposition of religiously based restrictions.”

“We are asking the court to stop this misuse of taxpayer dollars and to protect the health and safety of trafficking victims,” stated the ACLU’s Sarah Wunsch in January 2009. “Trafficking victims need comprehensive and compassionate care to gain their freedom and lead safe and healthy lives.”

The ACLU noted that in the USCCB’s Feb. 23, 2006, technical proposal, submitted to the HHS office, the agency stated: “As we are a Catholic organization … specifically, subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials.”

Now, the government’s decision to fund agencies that will provide family-planning services — the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), Heartland and Tapestri — means the new grantees must quickly absorb the large case load once managed by the USCCB program.

However, Sister Mary Ann Walsh fears that victims could fall between the cracks because the new grantees can’t match the capacity or depth of expertise of the Church agency.

The government’s “request for proposals had stated that agencies receiving the money were to be fully operational 10 days after being awarded the grant,” she noted in a recent blog post on the USCCB website. “That would have been Oct. 10. One wonders how that could have happened, since U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants and Heartland reportedly were posting ads seeking to hire staff just a few days before that date.”

“None of the three organizations has much depth of experience in monitoring and providing services,” she wrote. “USCCB staff were given a number to call for a smooth transition for the people served by the anti-trafficking program. Those who called it found no one could answer their questions.”

A perusal of employment opportunities at the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, one of three agencies awarded an HHS contract, confirms that several senior administrative posts and other posts have yet to be filled. A call to that agency seeking further information about hiring plans was not returned.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.