In the News 2015

Are Catholic Charities Denying Care To The Most Vulnerable Girls?

Last summer, thousands of children poured across the Southern border of the United States, alone, scared, and desperate to escape violence, conflict, and crushing poverty in their home countries in Central America. This year, a fight is brewing over what happens to migrant children once they’re in the U.S., and whether agencies tasked with caring for them can deny them important health care services.

Last year alone, 68,000 children were caught crossing the border. By law, those children have to be cared for until they’re deported or allowed to stay. While children wait in limbo, their living arrangements can vary from placements in foster homes to jail wings, which means some young people are stuck for weeks — or even months — in lockdown for trying to find a better life.

Unaccompanied immigrant children are vulnerable on a mind-boggling number of levels. Most of them speak little, if any, English; they are often crossing to reunite with family members that may live thousands of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; and, they’ve been at the mercy of the traffickers to guide them along the trip. Worst of all, there’s a good chance they’ve already been brutalized along the way. Recent estimates suggest between 60 and 80% of women and girls crossing the U.S. border from Central America are sexually assaulted at some point on their trip.

Care of these children is subcontracted out by the government to Catholic charities (charities that pull in some $10 million a year in federal funds to run facilities). And, as federal contractors, they’re required to follow federal law, including providing access to a full range of healthcare, from emergency contraception to abortion. A recent lawsuit by the ACLU alleges they might withholding that care and wants to know how widespread the problem might be.

New government regulations for contractors that help immigrant children will go into effect in June, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has said that it will not follow the new rules because of the Church’s religious objections to abortion and birth control. This means that children fleeing violence and persecution at home could find themselves victims of a different kind of violence: denied access to vital and legal healthcare thanks to nothing more than the bad luck to end up in the care of a group that doesn’t believe that access is a human right.

“What this comes down to is that the bishops want to take millions of dollars in government contracts, but at the same time, they don’t want to comply with the terms of the contract or the law that requires them to provide access to emergency contraception and abortion,” Brigitte Amiri, senior staff lawyer with the ACLU said in April, when the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit was filed. Finding out what actually happens when a teenager asks for reproductive health care — the USCCB has objected to even notifying the federal government so that it could help the teen — is essential to figuring out what happens next.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, and we strongly support that right at the ACLU, but that right doesn’t include imposing your beliefs on others to harm them, which is exactly what the bishops are doing here.” said Amiri.

The federal government has only just started releasing information relevant to the ACLU’s request, so at the moment, there is only anecdotal evidence, trickling out slowly from facilities spread across the country that offer glimpses of heartbreaking individual cases.

One social worker who used to work for a Catholic charity told us that the total doctrinal ban on providing anything related to reproductive health left young women in these social service programs vulnerable to unintended pregnancies and social workers unable to do their jobs.

Carrie Hartwell, an expert on the mental health of immigrant minor and refugee populations, said that she ran across many teen girls who desperately wanted contraception and abortion care but couldn’t get it. One, a survivor of rape, struggled to care for her child because of the traumatic circumstances of his birth. Another asked for birth control, but became pregnant before she could get to an appointment.

“I certainly witnessed multiple times in which girls struggled to get information and care because of the agency’s policies around not providing information or any kind of material support toward contraception, toward emergency contraception, toward abortion services,” Hartwell said. “Over the years, I witnessed great challenges with girls getting care for their whole bodies based on Catholic social teaching.”

Most people don’t have the option to simply ignore bits of federal law they find objectionable. Organizations like the USCCB and religious colleges have been fighting the Affordable Care Act over birth control rules and the Supreme Court supported religious objections to providing access to contraception in its Hobby Lobby decision, so getting help for children in the care of Catholic charities isn’t going to automatically become easier when the new rules take effect.

“This is not new,” Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe of Catholics for Choice said. “This is less about doctrine than it is another battle in the bishops’ war over their so-called religious liberty concerns. ” Despite the fact that most Catholics don’t want religion to hold sway over public services, Ratcliffe said, the USCCB has pushed against USAID funding over contraception, taken billions of dollars in public money for healthcare while ignoring advance directives and overriding doctors to set policy at hospitals, and refused to provide healthcare to victims of human trafficking.

There have been times when social workers didn’t let religious prohibitions prevent them from from helping kids who asked for help. In 2008, four social workers at a Virginia Catholic charity were fired for helping a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl in foster care get birth control and later, an abortion.

“It kind of wasn’t talked about, but girls usually got some services — maybe it was a social worker just doing what he or she felt ethically bound to do based on professional ethics, but the USCCB has, from what I have seen, taken a harder and harder stand on these issues since about 2008,” Hartwell told us. “Now the things that happened prior to that where social workers who cared deeply about the children they worked with got the girls to the gynecologist can no longer do that.”

The USCCB has argued that it should be able to continue to provide services without changing its policies and requests for comment on the lawsuit and on policies for caring for immigrant minors were not returned. The USCCB could lose the contract if they don’t follow the rules, but that could take years. Right now, there are potentially thousands of vulnerable young women and girls who have needed help and didn’t get it.

“This is just so anathema to what Catholics think,” Ratcliffe said. “We are called to social justice, called to care for the least of us, and to have those decisions usurped by a political entity is so far from what Catholics want. The example of that played out with this vulnerable a population is offensive to most of us.”


This article was originally published by Refinery29.

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