US House questions decision to cut bishops' human trafficking funds
George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS's Administration for Children and Families, testifies before the U.S. House committee.
George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS's Administration for Children and Families, testifies before the U.S. House committee.
By Michelle Bauman
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.- The U.S. House of Representatives opened an investigative hearing on Dec. 1 into whether or not the Department of Health and Human Services was justified in denying grants to the U.S. bishop's human trafficking fund.

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for the department’s Administration for Children and Families, testified today that the department funded groups who “could best meet the needs of human trafficking victims” which did not include the U.S. bishops.

Sheldon said that the administration found all the organizations “equally” qualified and decided that the awards would go to the groups that would offer referrals for “family planning services” and “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

But Steve Wagner, former director of the HHS department that administered funds for human trafficking programs, argued in a Dec. 1 interview with CNA that the bishops' beliefs in this area should have never been a part of the department's decision.

He said that the funding intiative was created with an understanding that abortion and contraception were “totally inappropriate” to provide for those seeking aid.

Wagner, who helped from 2003 to 2006 design the program which gives assistance to trafficking victims throughout the U.S., said that none of the original applicants for grant money ever sought to provide referrals for contraception or abortion.

On Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing which sought to determine whether the Department of Health and Human Services had made an unfair and politicized decision in awarding recent trafficking grants.

The U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services held a federal contract from 2006 to 2011 to provide food, clothing, shelter and medical aid to trafficking victims across the country.

Despite consistently receiving excellent ratings, however, the bishops’ group was recently denied their bid for a new contract.

The decision was made after new instructions were added to the grant application, indicating that “strong preference” would be given to applicants that would offer referrals for “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,” which includes abortion, contraception and sterilization.

A Nov. 1 Washington Post article raised questions of manipulation, reporting that some staff members in the Health and Human Service Department had protested that senior political appointees had interfered to change the outcome of the grant award process.

Congressmen at the hearing noted that a review board had ranked the top four grant applicants, giving Heartland Human Care Services, Inc. a score of 90, while the bishops’ group came in at a close second with a score of 89. Tapestri, Inc. received a score of 74 and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Inc. was given a score of 69.

The reviewers recommended full funding of the bishops’ group and Heartland Human Care Services and recommended denying all funding to Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

However, the department decided the latter two groups should receive funding and that the bishops’ group should be denied.

According to Sheldon, the scores were merely advisory, and additional information was considered as well. 

However, several congressmen questioned this judgment and referenced the review abstracts evaluating each of the applicants.

Reviewers noted that the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services provided “a comprehensive plan” that addressed all of the program’s objectives. The review also said that the group was among the “most experienced national experts on human trafficking” and possessed a “wealth of knowledge” and a “broad reach across the country.”

Although Tapestri had multiple strengths, reviewers gave the organization a lower score, observing that most program staff members “have limited or unrelated education” for managing the grant and “lack the training and experience” to perform the tasks laid out by the grant.

In comments to CNA, Wagner said that department leadership is putting trafficking victims at “tremendous risk” by placing them in the hands of less-qualified organizations.

He argued that abortion and contraception are not among the “needs” of trafficking victims that the federal program should seek to address.

Wagner explained that trafficking victims are often very young and under the complete control of a trafficker, so they cannot give their informed consent for procedures such as abortion and sterilization.

Furthermore, he said, pregnancy sometimes leads women to escape from their captors, while it is the trafficker who benefits most from an abortion, because it allows the victim to be “back on the market” again sooner.

Wagner also noted problems reported with abortion clinics facilitating trafficking by providing abortions but failing to report suspicions of sex trafficking to the authorities.

There is nothing to prevent individuals from obtaining contraception after they are freed, he said, but such a decision should not fall within the realm of a federal trafficking program.

Wagner said that it was “sad” to see the Department of Health and Human Services making an “entirely political” decision and sacrificing the “best interest of the victims” in order to do so.

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