By Ann McCreary

A federal judge in Spokane has ruled that the Trump administration cannot cut off funding for an ongoing grant that supports teen pregnancy prevention programs, including a program conducted by Room One in Okanogan County.

If the ruling is not challenged, that means Room One, a nonprofit social service organization in Twisp, will continue to receive a federal grant for the next two years to continue teen pregnancy prevention education and outreach programs throughout the county.

Room One is among more than 80 recipients nationwide that received five-year grants through the federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention program (TPP). Room One has been using the money for the past three years to work with teens in public schools, health clinics, juvenile detention centers and community organizations in Okanogan County, which has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.

Last September, federal Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price (who has since resigned) announced that the five-year grants promised for 2015-2020 would be cut off on June 30, 2018, two years early. The announcement caught Room One and other grant recipients by surprise.

The decision was challenged in federal court and last week U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice in Spokane ruled that federal officials had failed to follow proper administrative procedures and “arbitrarily and capriciously” terminated funding for TPP, which supports evidence-based teen pregnancy programs.

Rice ruled that HHS must fund the full five years of the original TPP grant in several western states. The suit was brought by Planned Parenthood Federation organizations representing Washington, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa and Nebraska. 

Rice’s ruling followed similar decisions last month by federal judges in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, in cases brought by plaintiffs that included Planned Parenthood Federation, Democracy Forward and Public Citizen. They accused HHS of attempting to illegally dismantle the program based on ideological beliefs rather than science.

Welcome news

News of the court decision was welcomed by Room One, although there is still some uncertainty about the future of the funding, said Adrianne Moore, associate director.

“It’s likely we won’t know until July if the government will challenge the ruling. That said, this is an exciting first step to ensuring Room one can continue to work…to give youth the information, skills and resources they need to prevent pregnancy and plan for their future,” Moore said.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, created by Congress under the Obama administration, funds on-the-ground programs like those implemented by Room One, as well as multi-year research projects conducted by medical and educational institutions including Johns Hopkins University and Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. 

Through the grant, Room One has been gathering data on teen pregnancy rates and conducting detailed evaluations of attitudes and behaviors of teens who have received Room One’s pregnancy prevention education program. The Spokane Regional Health Department is analyzing information on the program, Moore said.

“They are looking at the evaluations to see if statistically significant changes in behavior correlate to teen pregnancy rates,” Moore said. “Without the grant we wouldn’t be able to see if the huge work we were doing was effective after five years in terms of teen pregnancy rates, accessing resources and behavior change.”

In his ruling, Rice found that funding for the program should continue to “prevent loss of data regarding the effectiveness of teen pregnancy prevention.”

Room One receives $180,000 per year through the federal grant for the teen pregnancy prevention work, which it calls the Healthy Youth Initiative. The grant enabled Room One to hire two staff members to conduct education and outreach programs in Okanogan County.

The funding supports instruction in schools by Room One staff, and training by staff for public school teachers to provide comprehensive sexual health education. The funding also pays to send school teachers to external trainings, and to purchase evidence-based sexual health curriculums that are appropriate for each district, Moore said.

“Without training, it’s really hard to teach this,” Moore said. “It allows school districts to build capacity to make the program sustainable.”

School districts involved

The Healthy Youth Initiative is working with several school districts in the county — Methow Valley, Pateros, Brewster, Bridgeport and Paschal Sherman, as well as the juvenile detention center in Okanogan. Moore said two additional districts will be included each of the remaining two years of the grant.

The initiative also created a Community Advisory Group and a Youth Leadership Council to guide the most effective approaches to prevent teen pregnancy. Those groups are working on various issues such as making health clinics more “youth friendly” and training teens to become peer educators.

The Healthy Youth Initiative has also focused on teens in juvenile detention, who are among teens at highest risk of pregnancy, Moore said. Many of those teens lack safe and stable housing, which is a barrier accessing health care and general well-being, she said. “We’ve been doing work across the county to address this,” she said.

Teen pregnancy is more likely to occur among youths living in poor rural areas like much of Okanogan County, where about 57 percent of youth live in poverty, said Elana Mainer, executive director of Room One. Teen parents are more likely to drop out of school, rely on public assistance, and have children with poor educational, behavioral and health outcomes, she said.

Faced with the prospect of losing funding for the Healthy Youth Initiative after HHS announced last fall that it would terminate the grant two years early, Room One’s board of directors and staff made a commitment continue as much of the program as possible by fundraising or seeking other support, Moore said.

The recent court rulings mean that HHS must continue to fund the final two years of the TPP grant as originally planned. Each year, recipients of the five-year grant must file a “request for continuation” with HHS to receive funding for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, Moore said. Room One has filed the required request for continuation, she said.

“They would be in contempt of court if they didn’t continue” funding the program, Moore said. “If they are going to adhere to the ruling, we would get paid in July.”