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How abstinence-only education player Palmetto Family Council acquired and spent federal funds

MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1693.jpg
MahurinPointing_Thumb1_1693.jpg

While Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been criticized by some of his opponents, mainly Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, for a failed 2007 attempt to mandate (with an opt-out provision) HPV vaccinations for pre-teens, he has a defender in Oran P. Smith, president of South Carolina’s conservative social-policy organization the Palmetto Family Council (PFC). PFC opposed (PDF) an attempt in 2007 by South Carolina’s Legislature to mandate HPV vaccines for young girls, given its absence of the opt-out clause, as Smith explained to The Augusta Chronicle (PDF) that year. But Smith recently told Politico that Perry’s “impeccable record as an advocate of pro-life legislation” overshadows his HPV effort. “Michele Bachmann made it real-life, but he did not,” Smith was quoted in Politico, referring to the benefits of the vaccination Perry could have touted. “Maybe Mrs. Rick Perry should have been the one to come out this morning and say, ‘let me explain this to you in a way that only a woman can.’”

Emphasizing the role of responsible decision-making among an adult woman is telling. Premarital sex and sex education have been among major policy concerns for PFC, an 18-year-old Focus on the Family affiliate. In recent years, PFC has strived to maintain the state’s pro-abstinence-only sex-education law, which stresses an emphasis on “abstinence and the risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage.” Through its legislative influence and political connections, the PFC has been able to wield power in South Carolina when it comes to sex education and other social-issue policies. On the national level, that power has translated into federal funding for social-policy-related grants and, potentially, some sway in the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

Federal funding for abstinence-only education

In 2007, PFC commissioned a survey (PDF), polling registered voters about sex education in state public schools and on whether teens’ access to contraception (including condoms) should be restricted. Data for the “South Carolina Youth Sexuality Survey” was collected by the researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research (IPSPR), but the questions were drafted by PFC staff. Those questions included:

  • Do you favor or oppose the current law, which allows teenagers to obtain contraceptives without parental permission? (53 percent opposed)
  • Would you favor or oppose a law providing parents with a registry to tell the State Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) whether they want condoms or other contraceptives provided to their children? (58 percent favored)

The survey included the disclaimer: “None of the research contained in this document is intended to advance or defeat any specific federal or state legislation.”

In 2008, the PFC was awarded $3 million in federal funding to implement its premarital-sex philosophy into abstinence-only sex-education curriculum in South Carolina schools. Through President George W. Bush’s controversial Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) program — distributed through the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — PFC received about $1.2 million of the award to create a social-networking platform through which to communicate abstinence-only sex-education curriculum. Following government reports (PDF) suggesting the CBAE program was ultimately ineffective and promoted medical inaccuracies (PDF), the Obama administration canceled all CBAE funding at the end of 2009; thus, PFC never received its remaining $1.8 million.

The $1.2 million went to creating a website that relied heavily on the state’s religious community and existing sex-education curriculum produced by a nonprofit with a controversial history that was simultaneously receiving support from CBAE for other projects, according to grant documents obtained by The American Independent under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In its application for the CBAE grant, PFC included an endorsement letter co-signed by 15 state House representatives and another letter co-signed by eight state senators, which stated, in part: “We have come to trust Palmetto Family Council and the members of its board of directors are well known to us.” South Carolina U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Joe Wilson and former Reps. Bob Inglis and James Gresham Barrett, all Republicans, also asked the federal government to fund PFC’s abstinence project.

**BTrue: Where the money went **

In a youth-produced video, four African-American girls are sitting on a couch, laughing loudly and talking about their day at school. Chatter is interrupted when one of them, staring at her cell phone, says: “Hold on, y’all, we got a text. Oh, she ain’t pregnant! Congratulations! Woo!” The girls start shouting in glee and dancing. Cut to the next scene, the same four girls are walking down the street when they receive another text from their absent friend. The girls gather around the phone to read: “I’m not pregnant but I feel dirty — I hate myself.”

This one-minute-24-second video, titled “Negative,” is an example of the pro-abstinence social media network PFC created through the CBAE grant, the stated purpose of which was to teach “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”

In October 2008, PFC began implementing the BTrue Youth Leadership Project, which was originally called Palmetto Youth Network (PYN). The network is still functioning but has not been updated since spring 2010; the 25 videos have on average accrued between five and 25 total hits.

“Though cancelled less than halfway into its project life, the multimedia nature of the curriculum has allowed the outstanding content created by the BTrue students to live on in cyberspace as a unique course in adolescent sexuality,” Smith said in an email.

Aside from the student-made video series, PFC created a Facebook-style network where students sign up and can create personalized profiles. All members have access to the videos and a YouTube-style animated series called BTrueTube, which consists of abstinence-education curriculum created by Heritage Community Services, a 16-year-old nonprofit based in Charleston, S.C., whose Heritage Keepers abstinence-only curriculum was widely used in federally-funded abstinence-education programs. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) — founded in 1964 by a former Planned Parenthood medical director – has long been a critic of the Heritage Keepers curriculum, claiming it relies on scare tactics over education and shuts out gay and lesbian students by only teaching about sex in the context of heterosexuality.

For the two years PFC received federal dollars to fund this abstinence project, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) granted the majority of PFC’s grant request based on budget justifications PFC submitted to the government each respective funding year. Despite having been awarded $600,000 both years, in 2009, PFC only requested (and received) $570,994 to be spent on a seven-member personnel team ($160,500), fringe benefits ($32,100), travel to project-related conferences ($6,628), supplies ($8,000), contractual ($269,800) and “other” ($93,966).

The largest chunk of money was allocated for contract work from three firms: Heritage Community Services for the curriculum ($160,600); the Institute for Research & Evaluation for a third-party evaluation of the project ($65,000); and McAlister Communications to provide content development, site management, and system management ($44,000).

During 2008 and 2009, Heritage Community Services also received $1.2 million from ACF (separate to the contracting money it was paid by PFC) for CBAE grants. Since its inception, Heritage has received widespread national attention for its message that abstinence is the only reliable way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections, and for receiving most of its funding from the federal government. In 2008, the Post & Courier reported that Heritage had received or been allocated more than $23 million in state and federal money since 1997. In 2009, Heritage received $850,930 in federal abstinence-education and Healthy Marriage grants, according to records from HHS’s Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System (TAGGS).

A separate $12,400 was also requested to outsource maintenance, development and hosting of PFC’s BTrue website, as well as user tracking and “back-end administration.”

Part of the consequences of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) 2008 assessment of CBAE was a new requirement that all grant recipients would have to include a third-party evaluation of their projects. PFC’s was to be conducted by the Institute for Research & Evaluation’s founder and board chairman Stan Weed, a longtime social policy researcher who has testified before Congress on behalf of various policies. Weed, a Brigham Young University graduate, began his career working as a researcher for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1972 to 1989. Despite the GAO’s call for an independent third-party evaluator, the Institute for Research & Evaluation (IRE) was affiliated with Heritage Community Services. In fact, Weed developed the “predictors of adolescent sexual initiation,” which is taught to Heritage educators during their training.

Though Weed is identified as the project evaluator in the CBAE grant records, it was not Weed but Paul Birch, now a senior research associate at Evans Evaluation, who evaluated the project. Birch, who no longer works for IRE (once the CBAE funding was canceled, IRE lost its main revenue source and now only Weed works there, focusing on AEGIS character education curriculum), told TAI he gave PFC’s project high performance marks.

“The program produced sizeable and significant effects on several proven predictors of youth sexual activity including their belief about the value of abstinence, their efficacy that they could abstain from sex, and their intention to do so,” said Birch in an email. “These initial effects persisted several months after the program. The only weakness noted was the difficulty in getting youth to come to an afterschool program consistently and the fact that we were not able to collect long term behavioral outcome data since the funding was eliminated. Students who came to the program were overwhelmingly positive about it, which is to be expected as they volunteered to come in the first place, but is encouraging that they were not disappointed.”

Heritage Community Services could not be reached for comment. Smith did not comment on any potential conflict of interest but said that Heritage and IRE were selected based on merit and reputation.

“We chose the Heritage curriculum for a number of reasons, including its medical accuracy, its history with the HHS CBAE program, its quality, and its technical support capabilities,” Smith said in an email. “We also felt Heritage Keepers ideal for ease of conversion to a multimedia format. We chose Dr. Weed and his associate Dr. Birch based on their academic and organizational track record and their history with the HHS CBAE program.”

The success of the project was measured by survey answers obtained September 2010 from the approximately 200 South Carolina youth involved in the project. For example:

  • The proportion of youth leaders that have never had sexual intercourse and remain abstinent: 95%
  • The proportion of youth leaders that have had sexual intercourse but have discontinued having sex: 95%
  • The proportion of youth leaders saying they have a strong commitment to wait until marriage to have sex: 100%
  • The proportion of youth leaders indicating they would not have sex if someone asked them to: 95%
  • The proportion of BTrue youth saying they have a strong commitment to wait until marriage to have sex: 60%

PFC’s grant proposal included letters from churches and Christian academies across the state offering to donate access to meeting space and teenagers. The Rev. Joe Price, board chairman of the Greer Christian Learning Center, told TAI that during the first two years of the BTrue Youth Leadership Project, Greer Christian provided PFC with access to about 600 students from Greer Middle School and Riverside High School. Price, who is an associate pastor at Washington Baptist Church, said PFC’s project was “outstanding” and that it gave students graphic information on STIs. When the curriculum was brought into churches, it was even better, Price said, because “they could actually use the Bible.”

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