Investigations Human Rights

‘No Hope for Me’: Women Stripped of Parental Rights After Minor Crimes

Sharona Coutts & Zoe Greenberg

The combination of mass incarceration and inflexible foster laws leads to an extraordinary, disproportionate punishment that overwhelmingly affects poor and minority women, an expert told Rewire.

This is the fourth article in Rewire’s Women, Incarcerated series. You can read the other pieces in the series that have been published so far here.

Five years ago, LaDonna Hopkins was caught stealing clothes from a store in Rock Island County, Illinois. She wasn’t stealing them to wear, but to sell on the street. Still in the grips of what would be an 11-year battle with crack cocaine, Hopkins had assessed her options, and theft seemed the lesser evil.

“When you’re in addiction, there’s only three things you can do,” she told Rewire. “You can rob somebody, or you can prostitute, or you can steal.”

After she was caught, Hopkins was sentenced to five years in Dwight state prison. She was pregnant at the time. She eventually served five months inside, and an additional two-and-a-half years in a women’s treatment center. The penalty may seem severe for a non-violent crime spurred by drug dependency, but for Hopkins the true punishment was not the prison term, but rather the permanent loss of her parental rights to her daughter.

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“When I gave birth, I was allowed to spend 48 hours with my daughter in the hospital, and then I was shipped back to prison,” she told Rewire. “She’s four now and I haven’t gotten any closer to getting her back, and I’ve been going to court for three-and-a-half years.”

LaDonna Hopkins and her children.

LaDonna Hopkins and her children.

Hopkins says she wanted to transfer to a prison unit that would have allowed her to keep her child, while also undergoing drug treatment, but she was denied access to the program. Because Hopkins wasn’t able to look after her daughter, a family member was awarded permanent custody—a decision Hopkins has been fighting for the past four years.

Since she was released from prison in mid-2010, Hopkins has completed her associate’s degree, and is pursuing her bachelor’s in applied behavioral science. She has lobbied the Illinois state legislature and spoken at public events, all while raising a 1-year-old daughter as a single mom in an apartment in southwest Chicago. Despite these successes, she says she remains mired in a maze of state laws that are designed to protect children, but lack flexibility for parents who have been incarcerated.

Once parental rights are severed, they are all but impossible to restore, meaning that parents who were incarcerated for minor crimes can be left suffering the consequences for a lifetime, no matter how radically they transform their lives.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around being sober and giving my child up,” Hopkins said.

As part of our Women, Incarcerated series, Rewire interviewed women who, like Hopkins, lost parental rights after being incarcerated for minor, non-violent crimes. Thousands of incarcerated women risk losing parental rights each year due to a combination of state and federal laws that are intended to protect children and speed up the adoption process. This risk is more pronounced for women of color.

Philip Genty, a professor at Columbia Law School who is a leading national authority on incarcerated parents, says it has become common for incarcerated mothers to face losing their parental rights.

“It is a very rare situation where a woman prisoner with a child in foster care has not been confronted with this,” he said.

Experts say there is an urgent need for a review of these laws to increase flexibility, and to move away from a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.

“Whenever you’re talking about child welfare, having something that has these very rigid timelines, that doesn’t take individual circumstances into consideration, is a problem,” said Genty. “In some cases, staying with a parent may not be perfect, but it’s a better situation than anyone else has for the child, so why would you want to deprive the child of this relationship in his or her life?”

A Federal Law With Unintended Consequences

The question of what to do for families in crisis has long plagued government officials, researchers, and community workers in the United States. The foster care system has been an imperfect back-up for struggling parents, and particularly for women, who are more likely to be a sole parent than men.

In the mid-1990s, hundreds of thousands of children were languishing in state foster care systems across the country, while at the same time potential adoptive parents were growing impatient at long waits.

In 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), with the goal of speeding up the processes that kept children in the system for so long.

The new law set strict time limits on how long a child could stay in foster care before the state had to terminate a parent’s rights, and make the child eligible for adoption. If a child was in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the federal law required states to terminate parental rights or face the loss of generous federal funding for their programs.

The law requires parents to demonstrate an intention to reunify with their children in order to avoid losing parental rights. Experts say this has had unintended consequences for incarcerated parents, many of whom have found it virtually impossible to satisfy the act’s definition of “reunification,” which focuses on demonstrating continued contact with their children.

To be sure, some mothers are ill prepared or unable to care for their children at the time they are incarcerated; battling their own trauma and addiction, many struggle to care for themselves, let alone children. And a small percentage have committed serious or violent offenses, and may deserve to be confined, legal and family sciences experts on parental incarceration said in interviews with Rewire. The vast majority of people at risk of losing their parental rights, though, are serving time for minor, non-violent crimes, experts said.

And for those parents, it can be difficult to demonstrate continued contact from behind a prison wall.

Many state prisons are located in remote areas, far from the urban hubs where families of incarcerated parents often live. For example, it can take four hours to travel from New York City to the facilities that are located upstate. That kind of travel assumes money, access to transportation, and an adult companion for children—factors that are beyond the reach of many incarcerated parents.

“Visits are incredibly difficult at most facilities,” Columbia Law School’s Philip Genty said, calling most prison visiting centers an “afterthought.”

It’s challenging to determine how many incarcerated people have permanently lost their parental rights as a result of the ASFA. The majority of states and the federal system still do not routinely ask people whether they are parents of minor children during sentencing, experts told Rewire. This means both that there’s little information available about how many parents are locked up, and also that most jails and prisons fail to make sure incarcerated parents have real opportunities to maintain ties with their children.

Additionally, each state has its own foster care laws, and these laws are interpreted differently by county courts, which are often charged with determining whether and when to terminate a parent’s rights. To look at the national scope of the problem, one needs to examine the criminal justice system and the child welfare system at the county, state, and federal levels.

Nevertheless, some data is beginning to emerge, and it makes clear that the law has had disastrous results for many families, especially for poor people and people of color, whose communities are grossly over-represented in jails and prisons.

In New York, for example, one in seven children of incarcerated mothers will land in foster care, according to a 2013 New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services study based on a survey of 895 incarcerated people.

The report also found evidence of much more severe family disruption for the children of incarcerated mothers. Nearly 60 percent of children whose mothers were incarcerated were living with a grandparent, another relative, or in foster care; that applied to only 16 percent of kids whose fathers were incarcerated.

And women were far more likely than men to have their parental rights severed, the study found. Strikingly, 17 percent of mothers in the 2013 survey reported that their parental rights had already been terminated, whereas 10 percent of fathers had lost their parental rights.

The report concluded that New York should act to address “the differential impact that children with incarcerated mothers experience,” but the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which conducted the survey, could not tell Rewire what, if any, progress has been made.

Another study, by Charlene Wear Simmons and Emily Danker-Feldman, examined a decade of San Francisco’s child welfare adoption files from 1997 to 2007, and found that 15 to 20 percent of children in foster care in San Francisco have been affected by parental incarceration.

“It was very hard to read through the files. They’re just heartbreaking,” Simmons told Rewire.

The study determined that poor women and women of color were much more likely to be stripped of their rights to their children as a result of incarceration: Though Black adults comprise less than 7 percent of San Francisco’s population, nearly 60 percent of mothers who had their rights terminated in 2007 were Black.

“When you look at who is in the prison system, these are generally poor women, minority women,” said Simmons. “There’s a huge correlation between maternal incarceration, drug abuse, and termination of parental rights.”

It is difficult to determine how New York and San Francisco compare to other jursidictions, or to the federal prison system, due to a lack of data.

According to a recent report by the federal Administration for Children and Families, of the 402,000 children in foster care in 2013, nearly 60,000 were waiting to be adopted after the rights of all living parents had been terminated that year.

A spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families was unable to tell Rewire how many of those children’s parents were incarcerated at the time that their parental rights were terminated.

A 2003 paper found significant increases in the number of children whose parents were incarcerated while their rights were terminated during the late 1990s, at the peak of the war on drugs and following the introduction of the ASFA.

Although some experts told us that legislators were simply not thinking about incarcerated parents when they drafted the ASFA, Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union put it more bluntly.

“Quite frankly, it was a wholesale attack on the moms, and to be very honest, a wholesale attack on Black women.”

They Said There Was No Hope for Me”

Pamela C., a Colorado resident who asked Rewire not to use her last name in order to protect her children’s privacy, saw firsthand how the law punished her, instead of helping her to seek rehabilitation. (Rewire has independently verified her account with colleagues, and other publicly available materials.)

Pamela C

Pamela C.

Pamela’s story began shortly after the Adoption and Safe Families Act became law in 1997. In late November of that year, her husband died of a heart attack on the kitchen floor shortly after his 40th birthday, leaving Pamela to look after her son and daughter, who were 7 and 4 at the time.

Pamela’s grief compounded an undiagnosed mental health condition, and her drug use escalated. In early December, police arrived at the house. Pamela says they’d been told that she was dealing heroin, and while they never charged her with that offense, they did find a small quantity of the drug in her late husband’s dresser drawer. That’s when they took Pamela’s kids.

“After they took my kids, I lost my mind,” she said. “I was mad. I was not compliant. And so the caseworkers and I had absolutely the worst relationship you could imagine, because I thought they were playing a game that I shouldn’t have to play, because my kids were fine until all this happened.”

She was charged with possession of a small quantity of methamphetamine, but because of an earlier felony conviction arising from a serious car crash in the 1980s, she was sentenced to six years of confinement with an additional mandatory three years of parole.

Before going to prison, Pamela had been informed by social services that, because her children were in foster care, she would lose her parental rights to them unless she satisfied the requirements of the federal law. Like many incarcerated parents, Pamela found those requirements virtually impossible to satisfy.

“They wouldn’t let us talk to each other,” Pamela said. She says she received only one letter from her children each year, and despite writing multiple letters, she says she later learned that her children were not receiving them.

After 18 months in prison, Pamela received notice of a court hearing about the termination of her parental rights. She says she was not allowed to attend.

Two weeks later, another letter informed her that she no longer had any legal relationship to her children. They would be adopted.

“There were never any incidents of abuse,” Pamela said. “They just took my kids because there was no place for them to go. They said there was no hope for me, for rehabilitation.”

That decision ignited a 14-year struggle to regain her relationship with her son and daughter, which Pamela ultimately won. She completed multiple treatment stages and parenting courses, and is now working in an advocacy position at a Colorado nonprofit. She lives with both her children, who are coping with the mental and physical trauma of years in the foster system.

In other words, Pamela has rehabilitated herself, and now works to reform corrections systems that corrode families like hers.

“I didn’t need to go to prison,” she said. “What I needed was to get help. I needed to go to treatment.”

It’s a refrain that is far too common to researchers who have studied the collision of the criminal justice and child welfare systems.

“No one’s helping the mothers,” said Charlene Wear Simmons, the San Francisco-based researcher. “The system has given up on them. The sad thing of course is that many of them go on to have more children and they lose those children too. From a system’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense.”

On a Small Scale, States Make Promising Reforms

In the past few years, several states—some looking to save money in the wake of the Great Recession—have increased funding for community-based programs, drug courts, and prison nurseries, which are substantially cheaper than confinement.

New York, for instance, has shuttered correctional facilities, and initiated programs that divert people, especially mothers, from incarceration.

One such project is Justice Home, which is run by the Women’s Prison Association, a nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Justice Home launched last summer. It’s an intensive program intended to prevent the removal of children to foster care by working with mothers who are facing a minimum of six months of incarceration for a felony charge.

Alexandra Villano, director of strategic initiatives for the Women’s Prison Association, said the program grew out of years of experience running residential alternatives to incarceration.

“We decided to go in that direction because there was increased understanding that the point at which moms were more likely to enter the criminal justice system was when their kids were removed from their care,” she told Rewire.

Each program is tailored to the individual woman, and might include one-on-one or group services such as anger management training, housing support, therapy, or substance abuse treatment. Even with these intensive services, the Justice Home program costs on average less than $20,000 per participant each year, compared to the $129,000 it typically costs to send a woman to jail and her children to foster care, not to mention the incidental social, physical, and psychological costs, Villano said.

The program has worked with 43 women so far, and has discovered that, even at this early stage, the risk of committing another crime declined by 45 percent for its participants.

Similar projects have been developed in other jurisdictions, and a collection of states—New York, Washington, and California—have in recent years passed laws to loosen ASFA’s rigid timelines, which particularly hurt incarcerated mothers.

Joyce Arditti, professor of human development at Virginia Tech who specializes in families and incarceration, says incarcerated parents who lose custody of their children as a result of committing minor, non-violent offenses are suffering a violation of their human rights.

“It is a human rights issue because parenthood is an inalienable right,” Arditti said in an interview with Rewire. Not all parents are competent, and some deserve to be incarcerated, she said. But the problem in the United States is that the combination of mass incarceration and inflexible foster laws leads to an extraordinary, disproportionate punishment that overwhelmingly affects poor and minority women.

“It’s a form of punishment … that they are forcibly separated from their children and precluded from participating in family life in a meaningful way,” Arditti said.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

Analysis Abortion

‘Pro-Life’ Pence Transfers Money Intended for Vulnerable Households to Anti-Choice Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Jenn Stanley

Donald Trump's running mate has said that "life is winning in Indiana"—and the biggest winner is probably a chain of crisis pregnancy centers that landed a $3.5 million contract in funds originally intended for poor Hoosiers.

Much has been made of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues. In 2000, when he was running for U.S. representative, Pence wrote that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ [sic] entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He also said that funds meant to help people living with HIV or AIDS should no longer be given to organizations that provide HIV prevention services because they “celebrate and encourage” homosexual activity. Instead, he proposed redirecting those funds to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” programs, which have been widely discredited by the medical community as being ineffective and dangerous.

Under Pence, ideology has replaced evidence in many areas of public life. In fact, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has just hired a running mate who, in the past year, has reallocated millions of dollars in public funds intended to provide food and health care for needy families to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence, who declined multiple requests for an interview with Rewire, has been outspoken about his anti-choice agenda. Currently, Indiana law requires people seeking abortions to receive in-person “counseling” and written information from a physician or other health-care provider 18 hours before the abortion begins. And thanks, in part, to other restrictive laws making it more difficult for clinics to operate, there are currently six abortion providers in Indiana, and none in the northern part of the state. Only four of Indiana’s 92 counties have an abortion provider. All this means that many people in need of abortion care are forced to take significant time off work, arrange child care, and possibly pay for a place to stay overnight in order to obtain it.

This environment is why a contract quietly signed by Pence last fall with the crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization Real Alternatives is so potentially dangerous for Indiana residents seeking abortion: State-subsidized crisis pregnancy centers not only don’t provide abortion but seek to persuade people out of seeking abortion, thus limiting their options.

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“Indiana is committed to the health, safety, and wellbeing [sic] of Hoosier families, women, and children,” reads the first line of the contract between the Indiana State Department of Health and Real Alternatives. The contract, which began on October 1, 2015, allocates $3.5 million over the course of a year for Real Alternatives to use to fund crisis pregnancy centers throughout the state.

Where Funding Comes From

The money for the Real Alternatives contract comes from Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, a federally funded, state-run program meant to support the most vulnerable households with children. The program was created by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by former President Bill Clinton. It changed welfare from a federal program that gave money directly to needy families to one that gave money, and a lot of flexibility with how to use it, to the states.

This TANF block grant is supposed to provide low-income families a monthly cash stipend that can be used for rent, child care, and food. But states have wide discretion over these funds: In general, they must use the money to serve families with children, but they can also fund programs meant, for example, to promote marriage. They can also make changes to the requirements for fund eligibility.

As of 2012, to be eligible for cash assistance in Indiana, a household’s maximum monthly earnings could not exceed $377, the fourth-lowest level of qualification of all 50 states, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Indiana’s program also has some of the lowest maximum payouts to recipients in the country.

Part of this is due to a 2011 work requirement that stripped eligibility from many families. Under the new work requirement, a parent or caretaker receiving assistance needs to be “engaged in work once the State determines the parent or caretaker is ready to engage in work,” or after 24 months of receiving benefits. The maximum time allowed federally for a family to receive assistance is 60 months.

“There was a TANF policy change effective November 2011 that required an up-front job search to be completed at the point of application before we would proceed in authorizing TANF benefits,” Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), told Rewire. “Most [applicants] did not complete the required job search and thus applications were denied.”

Unspent money from the block grant can be carried over to following years. Indiana receives an annual block grant of $206,799,109, but the state hasn’t been using all of it thanks to those low payouts and strict eligibility requirements. The budget for the Real Alternatives contract comes from these carry-over funds.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is explicitly meant to clothe and feed children, or to create programs that help prevent “non-marital childbearing,” and Indiana’s contract with Real Alternatives does neither. The contract stipulates that Real Alternatives and its subcontractors must “actively promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The funds, the contract says, cannot be used for organizations that will refer clients to abortion providers or promote contraceptives as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

Parties involved in the contract defended it to Rewire by saying they provide material goods to expecting and new parents, but Rewire obtained documents that showed a much different reality.

Real Alternatives is an anti-choice organization run by Kevin Bagatta, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has no known professional experience with medical or mental health services. It helps open, finance, and refer clients to crisis pregnancy centers. The program started in Pennsylvania, where it received a $30 million, five-year grant to support a network of 40 subcontracting crisis pregnancy centers. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for an audit of the organization between June 2012 and June 2015 after hearing reports of mismanaged funds, and found $485,000 in inappropriate billing. According to the audit, Real Alternatives would not permit DHS to review how the organization used those funds. However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April that at least some of the money appears to have been designated for programs outside the state.

Real Alternatives also received an $800,000 contract in Michigan, which inspired Gov. Pence to fund a $1 million yearlong pilot program in northern Indiana in the fall of 2014.

“The widespread success [of the pilot program] and large demand for these services led to the statewide expansion of the program,” reads the current $3.5 million contract. It is unclear what measures the state used to define “success.”

 

“Every Other Baby … Starts With Women’s Care Center”

Real Alternatives has 18 subcontracting centers in Indiana; 15 of them are owned by Women’s Care Center, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers. According to its website, Women’s Care Center serves 25,000 women annually in 23 centers throughout Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Women’s Care Centers in Indiana received 18 percent of their operating budget from state’s Real Alternatives program during the pilot year, October 1, 2014 through September 30, 2015, which were mostly reimbursements for counseling and classes throughout pregnancy, rather than goods and services for new parents.

In fact, instead of the dispensation of diapers and food, “the primary purpose of the [Real Alternatives] program is to provide core services consisting of information, sharing education, and counseling that promotes childbirth and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting,” the most recent contract reads.

The program’s reimbursement system prioritizes these anti-choice classes and counseling sessions: The more they bill for, the more likely they are to get more funding and thus open more clinics.

“This performance driven [sic] reimbursement system rewards vendor service providers who take their program reimbursement and reinvest in their services by opening more centers and hiring more counselors to serve more women in need,” reads the contract.

Classes, which are billed as chastity classes, parenting classes, pregnancy classes, and childbirth classes, are reimbursed at $21.80 per client. Meanwhile, as per the most recent contract, counseling sessions, which are separate from the classes, are reimbursed by the state at minimum rates of $1.09 per minute.

Jenny Hunsberger, vice president of Women’s Care Center, told Rewire that half of all pregnant women in Elkhart, LaPorte, Marshall, and St. Joseph Counties, and one in four pregnant women in Allen County, are clients of their centers. To receive any material goods, such as diapers, food, and clothing, she said, all clients must receive this counseling, at no cost to them. Such counseling is billed by the minute for reimbursement.

“When every other baby born [in those counties] starts with Women’s Care Center, that’s a lot of minutes,” Hunsberger told Rewire.

Rewire was unable to verify exactly what is said in those counseling sessions, except that they are meant to encourage clients to carry their pregnancies to term and to help them decide between adoption or child rearing, according to Hunsberger. As mandated by the contract, both counseling and classes must “provide abstinence education as the best and only method of avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.”

In the first quarter of the new contract alone, Women’s Care Center billed Real Alternatives and, in turn, the state, $239,290.97; about $150,000 of that was for counseling, according to documents obtained by Rewire. In contrast, goods like food, diapers, and other essentials for new parents made up only about 18.5 percent of Women’s Care Center’s first-quarter reimbursements.

Despite the fact that the state is paying for counseling at Women’s Care Center, Rewire was unable to find any licensing for counselors affiliated with the centers. Hunsberger told Rewire that counseling assistants and counselors complete a minimum training of 200 hours overseen by a master’s level counselor, but the counselors and assistants do not all have social work or psychology degrees. Hunsberger wrote in an email to Rewire that “a typical Women’s Care Center is staffed with one or more highly skilled counselors, MSW or equivalent.”

Rewire followed up for more information regarding what “typical” or “equivalent” meant, but Hunsberger declined to answer. A search for licenses for the known counselors at Women’s Care Center’s Indiana locations turned up nothing. The Indiana State Department of Health told Rewire that it does not monitor or regulate the staff at Real Alternatives’ subcontractors, and both Women’s Care Center and Real Alternatives were uncooperative when asked for more information regarding their counseling staff and training.

Bethany Christian Services and Heartline Pregnancy Center, Real Alternatives’ other Indiana subcontractors, billed the program $380.41 and $404.39 respectively in the first quarter. They billed only for counseling sessions, and not goods or classes.

In a 2011 interview with Philadelphia City Paper, Kevin Bagatta said that Real Alternatives counselors were not required to have a degree.

“We don’t provide medical services. We provide human services,” Bagatta told the City Paper.

There are pregnancy centers in Indiana that provide a full range of referrals for reproductive health care, including for STI testing and abortion. However, they are not eligible for reimbursement under the Real Alternatives contract because they do not maintain an anti-choice mission.

Parker Dockray is the executive director of Backline, an all-options pregnancy resource center. She told Rewire that Backline serves hundreds of Indiana residents each month, and is overwhelmed by demand for diapers and other goods, but it is ineligible for the funding because it will refer women to abortion providers if they choose not to carry a pregnancy to term.

“At a time when so many Hoosier families are struggling to make ends meet, it is irresponsible for the state to divert funds intended to support low-income women and children and give it to organizations that provide biased pregnancy counseling,” Dockray told Rewire. “We wish that Indiana would use this funding to truly support families by providing job training, child care, and other safety net services, rather than using it to promote an anti-abortion agenda.”

“Life Is Winning in Indiana”

Time and again, Bagatta and Hunsberger stressed to Rewire that their organizations do not employ deceitful tactics to get women in the door and to convince them not to have abortions. However, multiple studies have proven that crisis pregnancy centers often lie to women from the moment they search online for an abortion provider through the end of their appointments inside the center.

These studies have also shown that publicly funded crisis pregnancy centers dispense medically inaccurate information to clients. In addition to spreading lies like abortion causing infertility or breast cancer, they are known to give false hopes of miscarriages to people who are pregnant and don’t want to be. A 2015 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America found this practice to be ubiquitous in centers throughout the United States, and Rewire found that Women’s Care Center is no exception. The organization’s website says that as many as 40 percent of pregnancies end in natural miscarriage. While early pregnancy loss is common, it occurs in about 10 percent of known pregnancies, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Crisis pregnancy centers also tend to crop up next to abortion clinics with flashy, deceitful signs that lead many to mistakenly walk into the wrong building. Once inside, clients are encouraged not to have an abortion.

A Google search for “abortion” and “Indianapolis” turns up an ad for the Women’s Care Center as the first result. It reads: “Abortion – Indianapolis – Free Ultrasound before Abortion. Located on 86th and Georgetown. We’re Here to Help – Call Us Today: Abortion, Ultrasound, Locations, Pregnancy.”

Hunsberger denies any deceit on the part of Women’s Care Center.

“Clients who walk in the wrong door are informed that we are not the abortion clinic and that we do not provide abortions,” Hunsberger told Rewire. “Often a woman will choose to stay or return because we provide services that she feels will help her make the best decision for her, including free medical-grade pregnancy tests and ultrasounds which help determine viability and gestational age.”

Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky told Rewire that since Women’s Care Center opened on 86th and Georgetown in Indianapolis, many patients looking for its Georgetown Health Center have walked through the “wrong door.”

“We have had patients miss appointments because they went into their building and were kept there so long they missed their scheduled time,” Judi Morrison, vice president of marketing and education, told Rewire.

Sarah Bardol, director of Women’s Care Center’s Indianapolis clinic, told the Criterion Online Edition, a publication of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, that the first day the center was open, a woman and her boyfriend did walk into the “wrong door” hoping to have an abortion.

“The staff of the new Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis, located just yards from the largest abortion provider in the state, hopes for many such ‘wrong-door’ incidents as they seek to help women choose life for their unborn babies,” reported the Criterion Online Edition.

If they submit to counseling, Hoosiers who walk into the “wrong door” and “choose life” can receive up to about $40 in goods over the course their pregnancy and the first year of that child’s life. Perhaps several years ago they may have been eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but now with the work requirement, they may not qualify.

In a February 2016 interview with National Right to Life, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-choice groups, Gov. Pence said, “Life is winning in Indiana.” Though Pence was referring to the Real Alternatives contract, and the wave of anti-choice legislation sweeping through the state, it’s not clear what “life is winning” actually means. The state’s opioid epidemic claimed 1,172 lives in 2014, a statistically significant increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV infections have spread dramatically throughout the state, in part because of Pence’s unwillingness to support medically sound prevention practices. Indiana’s infant mortality rate is above the national average, and infant mortality among Black babies is even higher. And Pence has reduced access to prevention services such as those offered by Planned Parenthood through budget cuts and unnecessary regulations—while increasing spending on anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.

Gov. Pence’s track record shows that these policies are no mistake. The medical and financial needs of his most vulnerable constituents have taken a backseat to religious ideology throughout his time in office. He has literally reallocated money for poor Hoosiers to fund anti-choice organizations. In his tenure as both a congressman and a governor, he’s proven that whether on a national or state level, he’s willing to put “pro-life” over quality-of-life for his constituents.