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Oversight: Really?!? Seriously?!?

Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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January 16, 2009

Recently I had a “Really?!?” moment, just like Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) — the nonpartisan investigative wing of Congress — issued a report (PDF) uncovering Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) mismanagement of a $150 million-a-year grant program called Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative. This program was created by Congress in 2005 as part of the Deficit Reduction Act to support marriage and fatherhood promotion programs. The goal of this program is to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent households.

In administering the grant, HHS determined that these funds could not be used to fund abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which are already funded at more than $170 million each year through other funding streams. Why, then, did HHS award or renew grants under the Healthy Marriage Program to organizations that explicitly asked for funds to provide abstinence-only programming?

Before the release of the GAO report, the ACLU had sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to HHS to learn the details of the Healthy Marriage Grant awards because we were concerned about whether the money was being used for proper purposes. But we didn’t know that HHS deemed abstinence-only programming an impermissible activity with these funds.

Through the FOIA, we learned that a number of organizations asked HHS for funding for their abstinence-only programs. For example, a crisis pregnancy center called Elizabeth New Life Center in Dayton, Ohio, was awarded $1,754,872 in Fiscal Year 2006. Among its proposed activities, Elizabeth New Life Center indicated it would use some of the funds to teach the WAIT (“Why Am I Tempted”) Training program. WAIT Training “teaches the psychological and physical benefits of sexual abstinence until marriage for youth.” HHS renewed Elizabeth New Life Center’s grant — without asking them to compete for it — for Fiscal Year 2007. The renewal application again indicated that they would teach WAIT Training in high schools. (Incidentally WAIT Training itself received more than a million dollars for fiscal years 2006 and 2007 from the Healthy Marriage Program, in part to teach its abstinence-only-until-marriage program.)

Our findings are confirmed by the recent GAO report: during a site visit, for example, an unidentified Healthy Marriage grantee told the GAO that they used these grant funds to support their abstinence-only program, and abstinence-only was the sole focus of their work.

How does this happen? The GAO report suggests that HHS fails to oversee these programs. That is an understatement. If an organization asks HHS for money to conduct abstinence-only programs, and HHS gives them money for such purposes, how is it a surprise or a mistake when that organization uses the money for abstinence-only programming? As Amy and Seth would say, “Seriously?!?” and “Really?!?”

So we sent HHS a letter asking how this could happen, and asking them what they plan to do to ensure that Healthy Marriage grantees aren’t spending these funds on abstinence-only programs. We’ll keep you updated as the news develops.

Goodnight and have a pleasant tomorrow.

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