HHS: Don’t Lose Sight of What Matters

By Kaitlin Owen, BTCC Human Trafficking Advocacy Intern

In October 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement declined the renewal of a grant to the United States Conferences of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), an organization that distributes aid to organizations whose clients are victims of human trafficking.  Instead, the grant was divided and given to four organizations, the largest of which is the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

In a statement, HHS explained their decision:

“Victims of trafficking have significant health care needs. Based on these needs, our Office of Refugee Resettlement included an explicit preference for organizations that would ensure that victims had access to information and referrals for the full range of health care services in the funding announcement for these grants…The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated it could not meet that standard.”

In essence, that “standard” to which HHS is referring is providing abortion, sterilization or contraceptive services- case managers commonly refer to these as family planning services.  In accordance with Catholic Church teaching, USCCB “won’t facilitate taking innocent life, sterilization and artificial contraception.” In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union brought a suit against the U.S. District Court in Boston for not requiring USCCB to provide these services as a part of MRS’s anti-trafficking programs.

Due to controversy concerning the grant dispersal, The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform began an investigation into HHS’s grant dispersal process: whether or not HHS did so justly and within the correct parameters, or if they should have refused USCCB from submitting an application from the beginning. The first hearing was held on December 1st, 2011.  This hearing dealt only with the concerns surrounding HHS and the justness of their dispersal The second hearing was held on December 14th, at the request of Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD).

The focus of the second hearing was to educate the Committee on the services needed by and available to victims, in contrast to the first hearing, which dealt exclusively with the actions of HHS.  ”To conduct a responsible review of the process used to award these grants,” said Cummings, “we need to understand who these victims are, what they have gone through, and why they need reproductive health services.” Service providers and survivors of trafficking were represented by a panel of two human rights activists: Florrie Burke, a psychologist and well-respected expert on anti-human trafficking efforts and Chair Emeritus of Freedom Network USA, and Andrea Powell, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of FAIR Girls in Washington D.C. Throughout the hour, they emphasized that returning agency to a client is essential to the healing process, as it is agency that was taken from themby their traffickers.  By restoring agency, the client service providers restore the dignity of their clients, and by restricting access to reproductive health services, the USCCB is denying survivors of human trafficking the agency to choose their health care for themselves.

Break the Chain Campaign strongly believes in the concept of restoring the rights of the survivors through restoring agency and self-determination.  Survivors of trafficking deserve immediate and full access to the entire range of healthcare services, including family planning and reproductive services. We are concerned that anti-choice politics will distort what really matters in anti-trafficking service provision: the human rights of survivors.