Monday, November 7, 2011

Memo to HHS: Show Me the Data

When Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise yelled “Show me the money” in the movie Jerry Maguire, it was funny. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) cries “Show me the data,” it is serious.

“Show me the data” is an urgent request from USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. MRS has long worked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help refugees, migrating children, and people trafficked to the U.S. for labor and the sex trade. The U.S. Justice Department recently lauded MRS in a brief defending HHS, which is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for working with Catholics. Said the Justice Department, as reported in the Washington Post, “the bishops have been ‘resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of trafficking.’”

Despite this, a recent anti-trafficking grant application from MRS to continue serving people caught in the 21st Century’s version of human slavery was denied. MRS asks why?

I have been informed that six organizations applied for anti-trafficking grants from HHS’s Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Four scored so low they did not make the cutoff when evaluated by an independent review board. Two applicants scored well. Heartland Human Care Services scored highest and MRS came in second, very close to Heartland, even after losing points for not being willing to refer for contraceptives and abortions. Yet, after finagling by Sharon Parrott, one of three politically-appointed counselors to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, ORR awarded $4.5 million, spread across Heartland, which earned the award, and United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Tapestri, groups that hadn’t made the grade according to the independent review board.

HHS denies any hanky-panky. Show me the data.

Ambassador Johnny Young, who now heads MRS after a stellar career in the U.S. diplomatic corps, asked for data. Young, an African-American, has seen plenty of racial discrimination. Meeting with HHS’s George Sheldon he noted that he recognized discrimination again – this time because of his Catholic faith. When Sheldon, Acting Assistant Secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, denied the deck was stacked, Young said, in effect, show me the data. No answer yet.

USCCB filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see how these decisions were made. Still no answer.

Defenders of HHS say the government has (until now, at least) partnered with the church to help refugees and others in need in diverse programs. As they rattle off grants they sound like a thief declaring “I use banks regularly. This is the only one I’ve robbed.”

Parrott explained her unusual involvement in the grant-making decisions, telling the Washington Post that “when important issues that are a priority arise, it’s common for senior policy advisers to have a dialogue to reach the best policy decision.” So much for President Obama’s 2010 Executive Order that addressed meddling by political appointees, "Fundamental Principles and Policymaking Criteria for Partnerships With Faith-Based and Other Neighborhood Organizations." Said the President: "Decisions about awards of Federal financial assistance must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference and must be made on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the religious affiliation of a recipient organization or lack thereof." Something’s amiss.

ORR said that in the 2011 anti-trafficking contracts, it would favor proposals where the recipient would refer for the full range of legally permissible obstetric and gynecological services, a code for contraceptives, abortion and sterilization. It did not say it would simply exclude applicants on this basis. Even with this handicapped status, USCCB beat out USCRI and Tapestri – until apparently the rules changed.

Whether or not this pro-abortion/contraception favoritism is legal is one question. Whether there was a demand for these services is another.

In the hierarchy of needs for trafficking victims, it would seem that safety, food, shelter, legal support and medical care have priority. Do trafficking victims who fear that their traffickers will kill them for escaping think “contraceptives first”? Is it the concern of the men, who as labor-trafficking victims comprised about two-thirds of the survivors who were helped by the previous anti-trafficking grant that MRS held for more than five years? If there were an unmet need or any complaint by those served, show me the data.

HHS’s manipulation was not harmless. The new grants were to go only to programs that would be up and operating within ten days of the date of the awards. Instead, 450 enrolled victims of trafficking and their families were left without services when the new awardees were not ready to roll on time.

Abortion politics blinds some people. Now the proponents have gone so far that HHS will violate an executive order and gut a program that has successfully served thousands of vulnerable people. Someone needs to deal with this travesty. MRS and the American people have the right to demand: “Show me the data!”

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