An abstinence-only youth program has had its federal funding suspended because it used taxpayer dollars to promote religion.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that the Silver Ring Thing used federal money for projects with both religious and secular components. HHS said last month that the nonprofit, based in Sewickley, Pa., will have to present a corrective plan of action to continue to spend its $75,000 grant (thanks to a congressional earmark) from HHS’ Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB).
The group’s main backers in Congress are reigning youth services earmark king Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and his Keystone State colleague, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), an ardent supporter of President Bush’s abstinence-until-marriage campaign.
Now administered by FYSB, that effort is set to receive $138 million in fiscal 2006, up from $99.1 million this year.
The Silver Ring Thing’s thing, directed by Dennis Pattyn, illustrates how muddled the lines of accountability have become under the peculiar ways of Washington. Under the de facto congressional policy of making earmarks out of what should be competitive national discretionary appropriations to pick winners (and losers), any semblance of evidence-based programmatic rigor is lost.
Once a group receives a congressional earmark, the administering federal agency – in this case the Administration for Children and Families, which includes FYSB – has little, if any, leverage over the ordained grantee. That is a perfect recipe for waste, fraud and abuse. Rooting them out is a top priority of Congress, at least at election time.
In reality, HHS’ suspension of the Silver Ring Thing’s latest infusion of taxpayer money was a pre-emptive move. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit in federal court in Boston, alleging that the Silver Ring Thing youth program is “permeated with religion.” Sued in their official capacity are Mike Leavitt, the HHS secretary, Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families, and Harry Wilson, associate commissioner in charge of FYSB.
Federal scrutiny of President Bush’s abstinence-until-marriage program is long overdue, says James Wagoner, president of the D.C.-based Advocates for Youth. “Why did it take a lawsuit from the ACLU for HHS to do oversight?” he asks.
According to one federal official familiar with the controversy, the Silver Ring Thing (SRT) claims that it keeps its regular religious programming and its secular, federally funded work separate by the simple artifice of having a recess during its sessions, which typically run for three hours.
Asked to describe an event, Pattyn says the program is “80 percent secular,” and that teens can easily opt out of the religious phase. He says, “It’s cool, it’s crazy, like MTV.”
Not that the group has made any secret of the fact that its youth program is a pervasively evangelical Christian enterprise. It was featured on “60 Minutes” in May, and Pattyn says, “Worldwide, we’re the best-known abstinence program.”
Based in the Pittsburgh area, the program began as the John Guest Evangelistic Team. Guest is president, but Pattyn runs the show as executive director.
Raised by atheist parents, Pattyn developed the SRT program in 1996 while living in Yuma, Ariz. He is a thoroughly self-confidant man with a plan to reach 20 percent of all American teens. He expects to have two million teens wearing a chastity ring within seven years. Each ring sells for $15.
What’s the hurry? “I believe that the end of the world is approaching very quickly,” Pattyn told a BBC interviewer. SRT literature warns, “Nonbelievers will spend eternity in agony.”
In 2002, the group reported income of $631,000 on its federal tax returns. Pattyn earned $89,887, but those rings ’n things weren’t selling. The group lost $8,410 selling its biblically inscribed rings and the Silver Ring Thing Sexual Abstinence Study Bible.
Just a year later, according to the group’s tax returns, revenue was up 108 percent, to $1,312,871, and Pattyn’s salary had risen to $106,035. The increases were a direct result of congressional earmarks; SRT has received five since 2003, totaling $1,355,000. Two of the smaller earmarks were for SRT programs in Columbia, S.C., and Gadsden, Ala.
How did Pattyn grab the brass ring? The old fashioned way: He hired a lobbyist. In 2002, Silver Ring Thing hired the Russ Reid Co., a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, for $120,000. Working with the new client was Paul Marcone, a former chief of staff to former congressman and current federal prisoner James Traficant (D-Ohio).
Now Marcone has his own lobbying business in Chantilly, Va. Silver Ring Thing paid him $75,000 in 2004 to act, says Pattyn, “as my staff in Washington.” Marcone’s other clients include the National Character Education Foundation in Zelienople, Pa., recipient of a $100,000 earmark last year, and Futures for Children in Albuquerque, N.M., which brought in $1 million.
Pattyn visits Washington often, having made up to 10 trips each year “to make progress reports” to Capitol Hill staffers.
In addition to his “staff” in Washington, Pattyn has 10 staff members in Sewickley. Pattyn projects that in seven years, he will employ “200 to 300 people.” He says that in addition to South Carolina and Alabama, the program has “rollout hubs” in Knoxville, southwest Florida, western Michigan and Boston. “The abstinence movement is in full bloom,” he says.
Opponents of the abstinence-only approach to sex education were cheered by this sputter in the conservative sex ed juggernaut. In a news release from the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, public policy director Bill Smith said, “It is our hope … that HHS will reexamine its entire portfolio of unproven, and potentially harmful, programs.” (See “Faith Based” in Report Roundup, page 32.)
Don’t bet the ranch on it. Pattyn is totally nonplused. He’s already got the $75,000 in the bank, and expects to receive SRT’s first competitive federal grant this month. The suspension by HHS may last only a few weeks. HHS wants a corrective plan; Pattyn says “additional safeguards” will soon be in place.
Once HHS accepts a corrective plan for SRT’s program, the plaintiffs will have the next move. “The devil will be in the details,” says Louise Melling, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.
This looks like a protracted legal struggle that could last until Armageddon or the end of Republican rule, whichever comes first.
Contact: FYSB (202) 205-8102, www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fysb; SRT (412) 741-0581, www.silverringthing.com; ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project (212) 549-2633, www.aclu.org/ReproductiveRights/ReproductiveRightsMain.cfm.
Your Wish Granted?
Many factors drive talented mid-career youth workers, agency managers and youth policy-makers out of the human services field. Among them: low pay, long and unpredictable hours, underappreciation, and the constant stress of knowing that, when working with at-risk youth, a catalog of disasters might be just around the corner. Unlike teaching, youth work is a year-round, often 24/7 occupation.
Somewhere on every upward-bound mid-careerist’s list of laments is that getting a paid sabbatical is about as likely as winning the Powerball lottery. The most frequent response to burnout and the field’s grueling tempo is to quit.
Now, however, the prospect of an alternative is at hand for six influential and capable people.
The New York-based William T. Grant Foundation (assets: $241 million) is seeking applicants with eight to 12 years of employment in decision-making jobs in the children and youth field to become William T. Grant Distinguished Fellows. Those selected will receive up to $175,000 over two years “to deepen their understanding and use of research.”
The first six fellows were named in June (see box) in a competition open only to researchers. Now, in the second year of what W. T. Grant calls a “pilot test of the program for the next few years,” the foundation wants applications from “influential mid-career” policy-makers and practitioners who want to “deepen their understanding and use of research.” Applicants must find a professionally relevant research-oriented institution (or two) to host them over a two-year period.
The six awards will go to the winners through their employers, which must be nonprofit or governmental organizations. Each fellow must spend a minimum of half the year (sliced any way you like) at the fellowship site. Letters of inquiry are due Nov. 3.
Those invited will have to submit a full application by Feb. 23, 2006.
This practice-friendly initiative is just the latest in a slow but steady change of course at the W. T. Grant Foundation, led since 2003 by President Bob Granger. Once known – and ridiculed – for its generous research grants of no interest to practitioners or policy-makers, the foundation’s grant-making portfolio began to improve when Karen Hein became president in 1998. She hired Granger as her senior vice president for programs in 2000. Granger has accelerated the push to link research to practice.
The program is by no means unique. For example, since 1993, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 11-month-long Children and Families Fellowships have offered leadership development networking, training and experience to accomplished human services professionals. Although no AECF fellows were designated in 2004 or 2005, the foundation’s department of leadership development says it expects to reopen the program in 2006.
But Casey’s fellowships are full-time, and the fellows often must sever their ties with their employers. The W.T. Grant approach offers more flexibility and can be expected to draw thousands of inquiries. Good luck!
The First W. T. Grant Distinguished Fellows (2005-2007)
Rob Geen, M.P.P., director, child welfare research program, The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C.
Host: Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives.
Focus: Child welfare.
Deborah Gorman-Smith, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Host: Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, Washington, D.C.
Focus: Evidence-based reforms in social programs affecting youth.
Joanne Nicholson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and family medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Boston.
Hosts: Massachusetts Department of Social Services and the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Washington, D.C.
Focus: Mental health and child welfare.
Jean Rhodes, Ph.D., professor of psychology, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Host: Big Sisters of Greater Boston/Big Brothers of Massachusetts Bay.
Focus: Creating and supervising matches between mentors and youth.
Lauren A. Smith, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center.
Host: Office of the speaker, Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Focus: Child health and well-being.
Constance M. Yowell, Ph.D., University of Chicago, Chapin Hall Center for Children.
Hosts: National Writing Project and Chicago Public Schools.
Focus: Staff development in urban schools.