County sues feds over sex-education funding
Cutbacks have crackled through the Multnomah County Health Department following a decision in Washington, D.C., to reduce federal grants for sexual health education.
Staffing at the county's Youth Sexual Health Equity Program has been reduced from eight to four after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services canceled a five-year federal grant in 2017 that was intended to distribute about $1.25 million annually through 2020.
"We're in a bit of a funding limbo," said Kim Toevs, director of the program and a 12-year employee in the department. "Our subcontractors have been really brave sticking with us through this roller coaster. Most of their staff are holding on until the last minute."
County leaders have been told to apply for a new grant that offers a maximum of $500,000 in federal funds a year. Instead, they've opted to sue Trump administration officials.
The lawsuit doesn't focus on the lessened funding, but instead argues that the feds have wrongfully watered down the application requirements for the replacement grant, known as the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention program.
When the TPP program was established in 2009 during the Obama era, it called for "replicating programs that have been proven effective through rigorous evaluation," according to the suit.
The county says that program created medically accurate curriculum that discussed using contraceptives, ways to avoid risky sex and sexually transmitted infections, as well as abstinence, as required by Oregon law.
The criteria for the new grant, included in what's known as a Funding Opportunity Announcement, uses language like "optimal health," "sexual risk avoidance" and "cessation" — which the county and its nonprofit legal partner Democracy Forward claim are code words for abstinence-only education.
"Multnomah can't apply with its current curriculum — and neither can any rigorously evaluated, proven comprehensive sex education program in the country," Democracy Forward press secretary Charisma L. Troiano wrote in an email to the Tribune.
The 39-page lawsuit filed early in June targets Valerie Huber — a senior policy adviser within the department who previously served as the longtime leader of the National Abstinence Education Association — and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II, a lawyer and former pharmaceutical drug company president.
There's also a separate class-action effort seeking to restore the old TPP grant that was filed for the 81 jurisdictions that suddenly lost access to funding in 2017.
A federal judge ruled on May 30 that the funding should be restored — and the feds have sent contradictory messages indicating Multnomah County should spend money like they're going to be reimbursed, but that they also reserve "the right to appeal" by the July 31 deadline.
Amid the confusion, Toevs has dipped into her own budget and asked nonprofit partners like Planned Parenthood and the Latino Network to continue their work with "skeleton crews."
"They knew this would be very disruptive," she said. "How can you keep anyone in their job if you can't guarantee funding?"
The Trump administration already has challenged unfavorable rulings in four previous lawsuits about the terminated grant funding.
In a news release, Multnomah County said it previously used the grant to teach 15,000 teens, train about 100 teachers, and interact with 300 parents in 32 middle and high schools. Roughly 2,000 babies were born to teenage mothers in 2016, according to Children First Oregon, less than half the 4,300-plus babies born by teens in 2007.