.- 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 departmentâs Administration for Children and Families, testified today that the department funded groups who âcould best meet the needs of human trafficking victimsâ which did not include the U.S. bishops.
Sheldon said that the administration found all the organizations âequallyâ qualified and decided that the awards would go to the groups that would offer referrals for âfamily planning servicesâ and âthe full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.â
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 âtotally inappropriateâ 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. bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ 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 âstrong preferenceâ would be given to applicants that would offer referrals for âthe full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,â 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 bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ 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 bishopsâ Migration and Refugee Services provided âa comprehensive planâ that addressed all of the programâs objectives. The review also said that the group was among the âmost experienced national experts on human traffickingâ and possessed a âwealth of knowledgeâ and a âbroad reach across the country.â
Although Tapestri had multiple strengths, reviewers gave the organization a lower score, observing that most program staff members âhave limited or unrelated educationâ for managing the grant and âlack the training and experienceâ to perform the tasks laid out by the grant.
In comments to CNA, Wagner said that department leadership is putting trafficking victims at âtremendous riskâ by placing them in the hands of less-qualified organizations.
He argued that abortion and contraception are not among the âneedsâ 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 âback on the marketâ 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 âsadâ to see the Department of Health and Human Services making an âentirely politicalâ decision and sacrificing the âbest interest of the victimsâ in order to do so.