Judge orders Trump administration to restore $5M in funding to Baltimore teen pregnancy prevention programs

A federal judge has ordered the Trump administration to restore $5 million in grant funding to two Baltimore-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, saying the government’s decision to withhold the money was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The case was brought by Baltimore’s health department and Healthy Teen Network, a nonprofit group based in the city. Both had received five-year grants to fund education programs aimed at bringing down teen pregnancy rates. But last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told them that their funding was being cut after three years.

Maryland U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake found the department had not followed federal grant-making laws in terminating the funding early and ordered it to provide the money for the coming two years.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen said the judge’s order would ensure that money remains available to provide health education to some 20,000 students.

“This ruling is a victory for the youth of Baltimore City,” Wen said Thursday. “It’s a victory for the use of science and evidence in health.”

The federal health department could appeal the ruling, and a spokesman for the agency said it was considering its next steps.

The cuts were announced in July 2017. At first, the federal health department offered no reason for cutting the grants. Officials eventually said they curtailed the funding because the programs weren’t working and might even be hurting teenagers, and because they didn’t anticipate funding being available.

But sex education advocates involved in the case contend the real reason is that agency leaders appointed by President Donald J. Trump want to concentrate their efforts on abstinence-only sex education. The lawsuit alleged in particular that Trump’s appointee to a senior position in the federal health department reduced federal grants for programs that did not match her belief that people should abstain from sex until they are married.

Dr. Patricia Paluzzi, the head of the Healthy Teen Network, said programs grounded in science need to be protected against the government’s “radical ideological” approach.

“This administration was very much hoping to turn the direction of reproductive health services and education toward more of an abstinence focus,” Paluzzi said.

The Healthy Teen Network filed the lawsuit in February and Baltimore joined the case in March.

The federal health agency “may have had a sufficient, lawful reason, for terminating the plaintiffs’ project period early, but because it failed to provide a reason in this case, or to meaningfully explain the factors it considered relevant to its decision, it is impossible to determine what was motivating the agency and whether that motivation was relevant at all,” Blake wrote in her opinion, filed Wednesday.

A spokesman for the federal health department, Mark B. Vafiades, said the agency was disappointed by the ruling.

“As numerous studies have shown, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is not working,” Vafiades said in a statement. “Continuing the program in its current state does a disservice to the youth it serves and to the taxpayers who fund it.”

City health officials dispute that, saying such programs helped lead to a 61 percent drop in teen birth rates in Baltimore from 2000 to 2016.

The Healthy Teen Network, a national nonprofit based in Baltimore, faced losing $1.5 million in grant funding it received from the federal agency to develop and study an app to provide sex education. Paluzzi said that without the money a Spanish-language version of the app would not undergo testing, leaving out a population at risk of teen pregnancy.

Baltimore’s health department initially was awarded an $8.5 million federal grant for five years for a program to provide sex education for about 20,000 students. But last summer the department was told by the federal health agency that the money would be cut off after three years, leading to a loss of $3.5 million.

Wen said the reduction would have greatly harmed the department’s ability to provide services. She said the ruling would secure the future of a new youth advisory council and sexual education training for teachers.

The health department says teen pregnancy rates have fallen dramatically since 2000.

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis said the ruling showed that federal agencies had to follow the rules and called the outcome “a victory for the rule of law.”

Dozens of programs around the nation face losing funding with the new administration’s change in policy. The Baltimore suit was part of a concerted push by reproductive health advocates to challenge the funding cuts and the Baltimore judge’s ruling was their third victory. A federal judge in Spokane, Wash. issued a ruling Tuesday following one by a judge in the District of Columbia last week.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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