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The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to order the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to release documents outlining U.S. policy limiting refugee and undocumented teenagers’ access to important reproductive health services, including contraceptives and abortion. The ACLU filed today’s legal papers after ACF ignored a Freedom of Information Act request from the ACLU dated August 19, 2008.
“Many unaccompanied teenagers come into the U.S. fleeing abuse and torture in their home countries. Some have been sexually abused or assaulted, or forced into prostitution,” said Brigitte Amiri, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. “As a matter of law, the U.S. cannot deny reproductive health care to these teenagers, and as a matter of compassion, the U.S. should do everything it can to ensure the health, safety and well-being of these teens that have no one else to turn to.”
“The first thing the government must always be is open to inquiry,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis, “which is why we have the Freedom of Information Act. If citizens can’t review government policies or see the statistics that show the effects of those policies, then we have no way of making government accountable.”
ACF issued the policy at issue after the media reported in June 2008 that Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Virginia fired four social workers who helped an unaccompanied, undocumented 16-year-old in its custody obtain an abortion and contraception. Commonwealth Catholic Charities receives funding through a federal grant administered for ACF by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The executive director of the Commonwealth of Catholic Charities defended the group’s actions by stating in the press that facilitating access to abortion and contraception is “contrary to basic teachings of the Catholic Church.”
“The Administration for Children and Families must ensure that taxpayer dollars are used to provide for the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and teens that make it to our shores. They are in need of our compassion and care,” said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Instead, the government appears to be allowing U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its subcontractors to use federal dollars to impose their religious beliefs on teenagers from a wide range of religious backgrounds who have very few, if any, opportunities to obtain the necessary care on their own.”
The ACLU is seeking documents from ACF to determine the extent of the violations and assess any further steps needed to guarantee that unaccompanied refugee and undocumented teens can get the services they need and that the federal government ensures that taxpayer dollars are not being used to impose one particular religious belief.
The policies at issue may impact a range of critical and even life-saving services administered through a variety of federally funded social service programs. Today’s legal papers note, for example, that a nurse employed by a Catholic Charities in Texas routinely provided information to her patients about the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV as part of a federally funded HIV program. After the U.S. Conference of Catholic Charities reiterated its policy following the June 2008 incident involving a teen in Virginia, press reports note that the nurse lost her job when she refused to deny her patients this critical information.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contracts with Catholic Charities to provide care to refugee and undocumented teenagers in a number of states across the country, including California, Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
Lawyers on today’s case, ACLUF v. Department of Health and Human Services, include Amiri with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Mach with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Rose A. Saxe with the ACLU AIDS Project; Rebecca K. Glenberg and Hope R. Amezquita with the ACLU of Virginia Foundation; and Ami Sanghvi and Galen Sherwin with the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation.
A copy of today’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is available online at: