Our Fight to Stop Discriminatory Screening Practices at AmeriCorps

Has your employer, school, or volunteer program ever required you to disclose all the medications you are taking – including birth control and antidepressants?  Have you been asked if you saw a counselor or if you visited a hospital in the last five years? 

Shockingly, AmeriCorps requires this information – and many more medical details – of all applicants to the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), the federal service program for young people ages 18 to 24.  Even worse, it rescinds offers it has given based on the information it receives, even when the applicant is qualified to serve.

This is what happened to Susie Balcom, who applied to join AmeriCorps NCCC during her last year of college.  With a 4.0 GPA, two successful terms with the state AmeriCorps programand a demonstrated commitment to public service, she received multiple offers from AmeriCorps in April 2017.  She accepted a one-year position to serve as a Support Team Leader, which would require her to coordinate logistics and trainings for corps members from the AmeriCorps office in Mississippi, starting in June.  Thrilled to be able to serve her country, she made plans to move and postponed the start of her graduate studies.   

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But in May, Susie was contacted by an AmeriCorps counselor about the health information form she was required to submit.  On the form, along with listing medical visits for strep throat and dehydration, Susie disclosed that she had gone for three sessions of counseling for anxiety.  The counselor asked her why she had experienced anxiety.  Susie explained that she had been sexually groped by a co-worker several months earlier and that she had sought out counseling to ensure her own well-being.  Susie continued to thrive in her academic and professional life following the incident.  Two weeks later, AmeriCorps notified Susie that she was disqualified from service.

More about the case

We investigated AmeriCorps NCCC’s health screening process and learned that thousands of applicants every year are required to fill out the intrusive and unnecessary health information form.  AmeriCorps NCCC also uses guidelines that discriminate against people with disabilities, including people it regards as having disabilities.  For example, the guidelines state that applicants must be deferred from service if they began therapy for anxiety within the past six months, and this was used against Susie. But people with mental health issues should not be punished when they seek therapy, because they often are fully capable of service.   

Other institutions that engaged in similarly broad health screenings have been found liable for discrimination.  For example, a federal court concluded that the Peace Corps violated the Rehabilitation Act’s prohibition on disability discrimination when it used one-size-fits-all mental health screening guidelines, instead of examining individual circumstances to determine whether an applicant is qualified to serve.  

Courts also have ruled that state bar associations, which grant licenses to attorneys, violate civil rights law when they asked questions like, “Have you within the past five years been treated or counseled for a mental, emotional, or nervous disorder?”  These questions impose burdens on applicants with disabilities that people without disabilities do not endure.  Health inquiries should instead be narrowly tailored to find out whether applicants have an existing condition that would actually interfere with their current ability to participate in the program.

Today, we filed a complaint on behalf of Susie with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that operates AmeriCorps NCCC.  We are calling on the agency to recognize that its health screening process is discriminatory and must be changed.  In the meantime, we want to hear from other AmeriCorps applicants who believe they were treated unfairly in the health screening process.  Please share your story with us. 

AmeriCorps NCCC does important work around the country. But to truly empower communities, AmeriCorps must give everyone a fair chance to serve.

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Anonymous

I also second this. There are many different types of AmeriCorps programs. I served with NCCC, the one that is being targeted by the article, as well as several State and National Programs. This is not the norm across the board.

In NCCC, there were two members on my team who disclosed ahead of time that they were seeing a therapist for mental health reasons, and both were allowed to join. It seems like even within NCCC there are differences in screening.

I never had any sort of health screen for the State programs I served with. They are doing much needed service, and I'm concerned this article will damage whatever reputation AmeriCorps has. AmeriCorps doesn't get a lot of press, so it's important that it's accurately reflected when it does.

Craig R.

If you read caregullt, the article specifically notes that it is not a *state* program that did this, but the *federal* program

NCCC Alum

I am torn on this one. I am very empathetic to the woman's story in this article and I imagine there certainly are more cases like hers. However during my NCCC year there were at least two people with severe mental illness that made others question their safety. For some projects, you're out in remote areas with no cell service living in close quarters with others under new and challenging circumstances, far far away from the campus counselor. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I want to get behind this one but I also believe there needs to be some level of mental health check when the history is extensive. I understand it's a slippery slope and I'm not quite sure what the 'standard' should be.

Anonymous

I agree. Many don't understand just how rigorous NCCC is unless you experience it. I had my highest highs in NCCC AND lowest lows. And by lows I mean serious depression. I know my TL didn't know how to deal with it because I didn't even know how to deal with it. It's not like you can go to a counselor every week. You can call but when you're in the California mountains with no cell that's not really an option. You literally just have to deal with it. And that's the question that AmeriCoprs NCCC staff has to ask. If this person is in a high stress situation can they deal with it? While I defiantly get that this sucks for this applicant I also think that these kind of screening processes are necessary.

Anonymous

The issue with new diagnosis in residential programs is that there has been a higher than normal self harm rate in residential facilities including NCCC. People most likely to harm themselves were people struggling with a new diagnosis before learning how to cope with the mental health issues. I was a conservaton corps member and agree 100% that AmeriCorps is a great avenue for folks struggling with mental health issues and personally my service experience was very therapeutic for the anxiety and depression I have gone through and helped build coping mechanisms to be a productive member of the workforce. I don't think it would have been wise to do this however, when I was at the peak of my issues leading up to and immediately following .y diagnosis. One you are often far away from mental health providers (for me, my provider is important) and 2 you are in a group setting and if you have not learned how to engage or disengage when suffering I would have fed add anxiety from letting or not meeting group expectations. I found AmeriCorps to be very accomodating to my Co dition however, and feel this is misguided. I wish the young woman well and encourage her to serve either now in a non NCCC residential position (95%+ are not NCCC) or wait a bit and do NCCC. For her own health. This isn't discrimination it is about safety.

Anonymous

Agreed.

Anonymous

I would go much further. Any person in this country that is stricken with an acute illness and has been trying to combat the pain and try to get through the day has found themselves out on the street trying to find a pain management clinic that will prescribe what they've already been taking through their primary care physician.

Anyone with chronic pain is deduced to taking humiliating drug tests and fork out $75 a month for the mere privilege of speaking with a doctor or nurse (on top of rising Rx costs) every month all for the same end results.

Pain is no joke but for some reason people who suffer with it have been singled out (total discrimination) to jump through all the hoops necessary according to the doctors, insurance, pharmacies, DEA and whoever else is involved. We deserve better than the way we are treated and it will continue to get worse unless and until our rights as patients are restored.

We've been fed a vast amount of lies just so our handlers can get their grubby money hungry paws all over it. Frankly I'm surprised there hasn't been a big blowback from it. Millions are suffering needlessly. If you can't afford it then what? Unfortunately no one cares. No one.

Everyone has a story about someone dying of an overdose. Look at the list of celebrity deaths so far this year. The suicides were from hanging. Should we ban rope, knives, cars, pools, alcohol?

We try to do everything right but yet we are still punished. CVS thinks they're heroes by limiting pain medication to one week at a time. I guess they figure patients will just go away because it's too much hassle.

People please speak up. Even if you aren't suffering with chronic pain encourage people you know who are to fight back.

About 10 years ago when you entered the ER (I worked there) there was a patient bill of rights posted and it said no one will be ignored and left suffering. Boy have things changed.

Another hideous rule is if you are admitted and are there for say 3 days guess what you just broke your pain management contract because the hospital gave you something through your IV because uh you were in worse pain from a flare and were waiting for a blood transfusion. It's just all wrong.

I'd join a class action lawsuit in a nanosecond.

Anonymous

This article really does not seem like it tells an entire story, and is steering the argument with information that is completely irrelevant. Having a 4.0 GPA or having prior professional experience, by itself, has no bearing on mental health. People can be and appear successful while also being self-destructive-- the term "functioning alcoholic" comes to mind. Not to mention, NCCC is very unique in the "AmeriCorps" umbrella. You have to relocate, move around every 6 weeks, live in rough conditions, and be otherwise isolated from your normal life. Other AmeriCorps programs are not like that; You can stay close to home and just sit in an office sometimes.

Reading through the filed complaints "factual allegations", I can see how there may have been holes in communication about the clearance process, but it's still very necessary. If NCCC is using a rubric to make decisions, and if that rubric is informed on both the law and the rigors/risks of people with anxiety serving in the program, I fully appreciate the decision. At some point, a line has to be drawn in a program like NCCC because it is so stressful. I don't know the law very well, but I don't think that the collection of medical and mental health information is unnecessarily intrusive- as an alum, it's obvious that some people who would be destructive to themselves or others if these questions were not asked up front. I'm OK with a strict mental health rubric in this case, because even if Susie slipped through the cracks, systems like this must be there to make the program safe for EVERYBODY.

Lastly, nothing is mentioned about Susie's response/receipt of the grievance process she inquired about. The complaint lists literally every single "factual allegation", and on #34, mentions that she would be provided information about the grievance process. Yet, nothing is mentioned about her following up on any grievance procedures. Was filing a lawsuit/complaint really the only way to take action on this?

As an NCCC alum who successfully served after disclosing a mental health issue, and as someone who was able to self-advocate during my conversation with an NCCC counselor to become medically cleared, there really has to be more to this story. This is not discrimination.

Anonymous

I am an AmeriCorps NCCC alum and I know this process first-hand. The blog post gets too many important things wrong about how people are brought in to AmeriCorps NCCC and how they are treated once they are there.

The ACLU is a great organization and I believe their intentions are right with what they are trying to do. But, they needed to do their homework and they didn't. I am extremely disappointed in them.

Anonymous

So, its like joining the military. I was asked all that both time I tried to enlist and turned down the second time because I had been diagnosed with chronic migraines which I had the 1st time I joined but hadn't been diagnosed with. Government programs have regulations and have to consider the efficient use of tax dollars.

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