First Person

I Helped Patients Get Through Abortion Clinic Parking Lots. What I Saw Was Horrifying.

In the first three months of 2019, more than 300 restrictive abortion bills were introduced, proposing everything from making abortion a felony to increasing restrictions on clinics. Recently, the Georgia state legislature moved to join three other states in enacting “heartbeat” bans that will prohibit abortion after fetal pole cardiac activity can be detected — as early as six weeks, before many people know they’re pregnant — essentially outlawing the procedure in those states.

Abortion barriers are not new. In order to receive an abortion, the average person will pay anywhere from $400-$1,000 for the procedure, travel up to 168 miles, and wait up to 72 hours. Low-income people and people of color face additional barriers, such as trouble getting time off, difficulty securing travel funds, and bans on insurance coverage. Even after jumping all of these bureaucratic hurdles, people still face physical obstruction and harassment at the clinics themselves from anti-abortion protestors.

I would know. For two years in college, I spent my weekends as a volunteer clinic escort, protecting patients and getting yelled at by strangers.

One Saturday morning, I drove into the parking lot at a Planned Parenthood in Tampa, Florida, and was surrounded by around 200 anti-abortion protestors. Even as an escort who knew what to expect, it was an intimidating experience. They had created a tunnel of people I had to navigate through. As I searched for a gap in the crowd of protestors to enter the clinic driveway, I had to pass through the thickest group of people who surrounded my car.

I had never felt so outnumbered before. The only clear path was between two police officers and their cars, denoting the start of the clinic’s property. As I stepped out of my car, dozens of protestors waved signs that falsely claimed abortions lead to breast cancer and “post-abortion syndrome,” and shouted that I was a “baby murderer.” It was the first time I remember being scared to enter a reproductive health care clinic.

These experiences were worse for the patients I escorted. Protestors were particularly offensive in the way they spoke to people of color, often using racist comparisons between slavery or “black genocide” and a person’s choice over their own body. Some of the patients I escorted were in an emotionally vulnerable state, and the heinous comments and personal attacks made the experience traumatizing.

Unfortunately, most of this harassment is legal under current law. Patients attempting to access reproductive health care of any sort at clinics across the country face anti-abortion protestors who have free rein to shout anything they want. However, there are limits to what protestors can do. After attacks on abortion clinics in the 1980s and ‘90s — when clinics were burned, bombed, and blockaded, and several abortion providers and clinic staff members were murdered — the federal government passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act. This law makes it illegal to intentionally damage reproductive health facilities and bars the “use of or threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent individuals from obtaining or providing reproductive healthcare services.”

While the law is important, it can be unevenly enforced and does not do enough to protect patients and those who accompany them in accessing health care — especially not in an environment where misinformation about abortion is being spread at the highest levels of government.

Since the FACE act was passed in 1994, only 15 violations have been prosecuted.

Since the FACE act was passed in 1994, only 15 violations have been prosecuted.

I personally called the police to report protesters who walked in front of cars to block the entrance to the clinic parking lot and took up valuable parking spots in the clinic’s lot, and fellow volunteers had to report assaults from protestors. Yet, I found local police officers were not always understanding or helpful in protecting the safety of patients. Male police officers, in particular, did not understand the threats these protestors posed to our patients, brushing off their actions and implying that we were wasting their time. In one instance, the police officers ignored the complaint against the protestors and instead focused on the music I had playing out of my car to block out the loudspeakers of the protestors, giving me a citation instead of scolding protestors for breaking the law.

Fortunately, some states have expanded and improved upon the FACE Act. Colorado passed a law, which survived a Supreme Court challenge, to prevent anti-abortion protestors from coming within eight feet of someone entering the clinic without their consent. Other states prohibit actions aimed at abortion providers, including threatening and intimidating staff.

Access to abortion has been the law of the land since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973, but with increasing legal restrictions and hostility against abortion, lawmakers need to do a better job protecting people’s constitutional right to access the health care they want and need. People already face too many legal barriers in accessing abortion health care, and every day it seems as though there is another attempt to take away personal autonomy for people seeking abortions. At a time when dangerous lies are being spread about abortion by President Trump, and anti-choice protestors are getting bolder, it’s more important than ever.



Administration-Sanctioned Discrimination Is Keeping Foster Kids Out of Loving Homes

Alex* was adopted from foster care at age two, and came out to her adoptive family when she was 14. After that point, Alex never felt safe at home. Immediately after coming out, her adoptive family began calling her names, making derogatory comments about her sexual orientation, and prohibiting her from participating in age-appropriate activities, such as spending time with friends or participating in extracurriculars. “It was heck for me,” Alex said. “I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, and I wasn’t allowed to do after-school activities, and [my adoptive mother] thought I was just lying to her to go meet up with a girl or something. Once I became 18, I actually got kicked out.”

There are currently almost half a million children in foster care in the United States, 123,000 of whom are waiting to be adopted. Child welfare data indicate that approximately 23 percent of children in foster care identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, like Alex.

In the state of South Carolina, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently waived federal nondiscrimination policy for foster care and adoption. While South Carolina is the only state that has been granted such a waiver to date, there are 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia — that use federal dollars to support private faith-based agencies, even when those agencies discriminate against foster and adoptive parents who do not share their stated religious values.

There has been a lot written on the principles of this policy. But much less has been said about whether these agencies are even able to effectively do their jobs.

Delaying, or even preventing, placement with permanent families — which agencies do by default when they restrict the pool of available families — can have life-long consequences for kids in foster care. Every year, about 20,000 youth age out of the foster care system without being adopted, leaving them with fewer educational and employment opportunities, and more likely to experience homelessness, become pregnant early, lack access to health care, and become involved in the criminal justice system.

There is also a more nuanced question as to whether agencies that discriminate against prospective parents are capable of supporting the diverse children  —  children of varying religious backgrounds, races, ethnicities, abilities, gender identities, and sexual orientations  —  that make up the foster care population.

Optimally, the foster and adoptive parents working with states should reflect the same diversity as the children they serve, and most importantly, every foster parent a state works with should be able to support, affirm, and meet the needs of any child in care. The demographics of children in foster care, and foster and adoptive parents, look different in every state. However, children of color and children who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionality involved in child welfare systems and experience disparities while there. There is also incredible diversity in the faith needs of children in foster care. Many young people express the desire to be connected to their faith community. This is a critical part of a young person’s identity, and the only faith and spirituality needs that should be taken into account are theirs.

Foster parents working with states should reflect the same diversity as the children they serve.

Studies have found that attention to a child’s identity is core to promoting health and well-being — and that doing so has an impact on their success and stability as adults. For example, research has demonstrated that providing children of color with opportunities to cultivate a positive relationship with their ethnic and racial identity can serve as a protective factor, offsetting trauma, increasing self-esteem, and helping to mitigate the effects of racial discrimination. Research also shows that acknowledging and affirming youth’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression is critically important to a young person’s health and well-being, and promotes both safety and their success in foster and adoptive homes.

In reference to South Carolina’s new order, Erin Hall, a former provider and the previous CEO of the Palmetto Association for Children and Families, stated, “Finding foster and adoptive homes is about matching a child’s needs with a family. In South Carolina, we have put the preference of one faith-based agency ahead of the mission of child welfare. This is not reflective of what we know is in the best interest of kids or what most of the faith-based service providers in South Carolina believe is right.”

When child welfare agencies prioritize the needs of faith-based agencies over children, that restricts their ability to recruit and license loving and affirming foster and adoptive homes, there are significant negative consequences for children. Alex’s experience is one example.

In Alex’s case, by placing a young child in a home that was not affirming, she grew up without the support that foster and adoptive parents have committed to provide, and the state has committed to establish.

Child welfare experts, including many faith-based providers, know that these religious refusal laws hurt children. Unfortunately, the current political climate, and the too often unchecked power state governors and legislators have over the policies that govern child welfare systems, is likely to lead to more religious refusal in the future. Texas’ attorney general has now asked for a waiver to exempt religious groups in his state. In Pennsylvania, several lawmakers, without going through their governor, sent a request for such a waiver directly to HHS. These actions may respond to the desires of some providers, but is not aligned with the majority of faith-based child welfare providers and is firmly outside of the norms of child welfare best practice.

Lena Wilson, vice president of the children and families division at Samaritas, one of the largest faith-based providers in Michigan, described what she saw as the obligation of organizations like hers in the wake of the passage of a religious refusal law in her state: “We as agencies have to be vigilant to ensure all of our children and families are served without discrimination. Currently discriminatory legislation is being passed in the dead of night, which further marginalizes our LGBTQ youth and families and denies them equal access to services that they deserve.”

*Name was changed for privacy.



The Case for Reparations for Black Farmers

Last spring, I drove 130 miles west of New Orleans to New Iberia, a small agricultural town located in the heart of Louisiana’s sugarcane country. The magnolias were just beginning to bloom in fragrant, white globes, and sugarcane fields stretched all the way to the flat, blue horizon. For decades, up to 5,000 of these acres were farmed by the Provost family, one of the region’s most successful black sugarcane farm families.

But today, fourth-generation farmer June Provost and his wife Angie are among the very last of Louisiana’s black sugarcane farmers — and they’re fighting desperately to retain their land and livelihood. (Months of interviews and research became a feature story I published last October in the Guardian.)

After June was driven out of business in 2015, and then Angie in 2017, the Provosts alleged discrimination and wrongdoing by local agricultural lenders, a local sugar mill, and county U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, and they’ve brought multiple lawsuits to prove they were treated differently than white farmers. June and Angie say the tactics used to force them from their land — including vandalism, intimidation, and contract and lending discrimination — have been widely deployed by various institutions to topple the entire black farming community.

The agriculture industry is awash in such discrimination, with slavery as the original and most horrifying sin. In 1982, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that by 2000, there would be no remaining black farmers in the United States (today, fewer than 2 percent of U.S. farmers are black), and a 1997 USDA internal audit showed that loan applications for black farmers took three times longer than white farmers to be processed. The Pigford lawsuits of the 1990s and 2000s found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had consistently discriminated against black farmers during the loan process, and resulted in pay-outs (most of them $50,000) for thousands of victims.

As a country, we are long overdue to atone for the unpaid labor, trauma, and harm inflicted upon enslaved Africans — as well as for decades of Jim Crow policies, which widely placed black Americans and their descendants at a stark economic disadvantage. Today, the call for reparations is gaining momentum. Many key Democrats have expressed support for legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), which would establish a commission to study the feasibility of reparations.

The first attempt at reparations came on the heels of the Civil War, when General Sherman ordered a sweeping redistribution of land across the U.S. South. Up to 400,000 acres of formerly Confederate-owned land was to be divided into 40-acre parcels and given to newly-freed slaves. But just months later, President Andrew Johnson overturned the order, and black families were evicted from their new acreage. “Forty acres and a mule” became one of many broken promises by the U.S. government to black America.

During slavery, the Louisiana sugar barons were among the most brutal perpetrators, using the bodies of enslaved black people to build and work their plantations. Such plantations produced the products that would prop up the early U.S. economy. Angie Provost’s ancestors were stolen from their home in Cameroon and forced onto slave ships bound for Louisiana sugar plantations.

Today, fewer than 2 percent of U.S. farmers are black.

Even after slavery was outlawed, many black workers were imprisoned as indentured servants under a legal system of debt peonage. Laborers worked off debt in the fields for free, but were kept perpetually in debt, forever bound to work without pay. Just as wealth, opportunity, and the institution of racism was passed to the children of white plantation owners, imprisonment by debt was often transferred to the next generation of black laborers.

In her book, Farming While Black, farmer and food sovereignty activist Leah Penniman wrote, “If African American people were paid $20 per week for our agricultural labor rather than enslaved, we would have $6.4 trillion in today’s dollars in the bank right now. This figure does not include reparations for denied credit and homeownership opportunities, exclusion from the social safety net and education, or property theft and destruction.”

But reparations aren’t only about the past. A recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that “between 1983 and 2016, the median black family saw their wealth drop by more than half after adjusting for inflation, compared to a 33 percent increase for the median white household.” Today, reads the report, “the median black family today owns $3,600 — just 2 percent of the $147,000 of wealth the median white family owns.”

A similar disparity exists in land ownership. In the United States, white landowners own 98 percent of rural acreage (worth over $1 trillion), while black landowners own less than one percent (worth approximately $14 billion).

Last year, during an interview with Hank Sanders, one of the lead attorneys for the Pigford case, I asked him if he felt that the $50,000 pay-outs that black farmers received constituted justice. “I feel like we did the best we could do, but I don’t think that was justice,” he said. “When you take a farm away from people, you not only take away a way of earning a living, you also take away a lifestyle. Money can’t replace that.”

But, he said, it was a start. It was also proof of the widespread racism within the department, and the significant harm done to black farmers at the hands of the government.

“Pigford was meant to right the wrongs of discrimination, but most of the claimants awarded are out of business,” said Angie. This now includes June, who received a pay-out as a Pigford claimant, along with his father and brothers, leading Angie to believe that reparations should also include policy changes, “including extending legal limits for retaliation.”

“Those of us discriminated against — whether it’s racism or sexism — rarely speak up or fight back based on the fear of being eliminated or devalued further,” said Angie. “Taking away that fear is part of reparations.”



New Jersey Is Proving That Bail Reform Works

Ever since the state of New Jersey approved comprehensive reforms to its money bail system in 2014, opponents have warned that the changes — which eliminate cash bail for people accused of low-level crimes — would lead to “dangerous and violent offenders [being] cut loose from jails and shoved into communities where innocent people suffer.”

Numerous law enforcement officials, prosecutors, lawmakers and local media outlets have been strong opponents of the elimination of cash bail, which is the payment required from a defendant in return for being released from jail as they await trial. The fiercest resistance to change has come from the powerful for-profit bail bond industry.

This $2 billion industry, which makes most of its earnings by exploiting low-income defendants stuck in desperate situations by shaking them down for steep and sometimes illegal fees in return for a loan that can be used to pay bail, has been using misinformation and fear tactics to combat cash bail reforms. One industry group even posted on Facebook that reforming the cash bail system means “every night is purge night,” an allusion to the popular horror films in which crime is legalized.

However, the results are in from the long-awaited criminal justice report by New Jersey’s Administrative Office of the Courts, and it’s clear that the Garden State did not devolve into lawless chaos because of bail reform. Instead, crime rates in New Jersey have been plummeting ever since the reforms were implemented in 2017, with violent offences such as homicide and robbery down by more than 30 percent.

The report proves that concerns about large numbers of defendants committing crimes while released and failing to show up for trial were unwarranted. State court officials say that the differences before and after the state’s bail reform are statistically insignificant — there was a 3.3 percentage point increase in the number of defendants who failed to appear in court, and a 1 percentage point increase in the number of defendants who were charged with a new crime while released and awaiting trial. The report states that that “because of certain challenges in compiling data from 2014, small changes in outcome measures should be interpreted with caution and likely do not represent meaningful differences.”

The positive impacts are much more noteworthy. According to a statement by Superior Court Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the New Jersey courts, “New Jersey’s jail population looks very different today than it did when the idea of reforming the state’s criminal justice system first took hold.” The state’s overall pretrial population, which consists of detainees who have not been charged with a crime, has declined by 44 percent. That amounts to 6,000 fewer people incarcerated in 2018 compared to 2012.

This means that thousands of defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent under the law will be free to remain with their families and their community while they await their day in court. Under the previous system, low-income defendants would see their lives fall apart as they lost their job, housing, or even their children simply because they could not afford to pay bail.

In New Jersey, concerns about a crime explosion turned out to be nothing but fearmongering.

On the other side of the spectrum, violent yet wealthy defendants will no longer be able to use their resources to walk free when facing serious charges such as sexual assault or armed robbery, while low-income defendants facing minor charges such as possession of marijuana remain locked up. According to a statement by the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Jersey State Director Roseanne Scotti, all this proves “that New Jersey’s historic bail reform law has been a resounding success.”

It is important to note that these reforms are not a panacea. The report reveals that although the state’s jail population is dropping, “the overrepresentation of black males in the pretrial jail populations remains an area in need of further examination.” In a press release, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey mostly praised the reforms but added that “a system that reduces the number of incarcerated people but does not improve racial disparities is simply not good enough. We intend to continue our advocacy efforts to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”

Although more work needs to be done to address these racial disparities, New Jersey’s reforms have been successful enough to inspire other states, including California, New York, Texas, Illinois, and Alaska. The bail bond industry has also declared war on those efforts.

The report’s findings are “an absolute refutation of the bail industry’s scare tactics” said Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, in an email. “They had warned that a virtual elimination of money bail would result in no one appearing in court and massive crime increases. That we’ve seen 6,000 fewer people jailed and virtually no increase in court nonappearance or re-arrest rates debunks that myth.”

In New Jersey, concerns about a crime explosion turned out to be nothing but fearmongering. It is now up to the rest of the nation to follow suit by looking at the facts, ignoring the bail industry’s scare tactics and taking steps to create a just, safe, and nondiscriminatory bail system.



Flint Still Doesn’t Have Clean Water. It’s Not Alone.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of when the state-controlled government of Flint, Michigan, negligently chose to prioritize short-sighted cost-savings over its residents’ health and access to clean, safe water. The toll of this state-sanctioned poisoning affected more than 9,000 Flint children under the age of six, a portion of whom are set to start kindergarten this year.

The children of Flint and another 3,000 communities across the U.S. with dangerously elevated lead levels in their blood face an uphill, lifelong road littered with lead-induced developmental challenges, caused and exacerbated by long-neglected infrastructure ill-equipped to meet their needs, and a national public seemingly reluctant (if not apathetic) to do anything meaningful about it. Infrastructure might not be the “hottest” policy issue to pursue, but the consequences of ignoring it are all too clearly costly and deadly.

Five years after Flint entered the national consciousness, the perpetrators of this man-made crisis continue to go unseen and unscathed. And Flint is just the beginning. Because of bad corporate actors, derelict landlords, and governmental neglect and mismanagement at all levels, our nation’s infrastructure has become toxic and dilapidated, in need of more than $2 trillion worth of investments and 21st century policies that prioritize the most affected and proactive prevention rather than costly yet reactionary and incrementalistic approaches that favor wealthy enclaves.

Despite declarations to the contrary, with 2,500 lead-tainted pipes still in use, Flint remains poisoned and we as a nation still haven’t put our money where our mouth is in equitably ensuring that every person has access to clean water and safe homes, free from health hazards. The last major government study conservatively estimated that more half a million kids residing throughout the U.S. have significant levels of lead in their bloodstream as a result of the more than 9 million homes, neighborhoods, and schools that still have lead paint and pipes within their walls.

While Congress banned lead in plumbing systems 33 years ago and the United States, as a whole, has made important investments in reducing overall lead exposure, federal efforts have stopped short of pursuing an aggressive and comprehensive plan to remediate the millions of affected water pipes. Though the poisoning of Flint brought crucial attention to our nation’s tainted water systems, often overshadowed in the national conversation is the fact that lead-based paint is the most common, highly concentrated poisoning source for children in the United States. Despite being federally outlawed in 1978, lead-based paint remains within the crumbling walls, windowsills, and other surfaces of more than 37 million old homes and millions of aging buildings – schools, business spaces, and government offices –  where inhabitants can easily ingest and inhale contaminated dust and paint-chips.

The cost of these man-made infrastructure crises is always more than dollars and cents ­– it’s irreversible nerve and brain damage, unexplained neurological symptoms, hookworms and “neglected tropical diseases,” in the rural South, and lives lost to severe pneumonia and raging wildfires. These, and countless other examples of lives irreparably damaged by deteriorating and ineffective infrastructure, do not exist in isolation.

Poor infrastructure impacts everyone, regardless of race and class status, but – like so many other issues in America – racial minorities and people living in poverty experience the brunt of that pain. More than half of Flint’s population is African American and slightly more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty; similar stories reported in cities like Milwaukee, in rural areas of Kentucky or Alabama, and elsewhere are often in majority black areas and/or where poverty levels are high. Members of the Navajo Tribe continue to deal with gradual poisoning as a result of uranium mining in the 1950s, and towns in Alabama have become a dumping ground for human waste because of our nation’s failing wastewater infrastructure.

When these communities are observed in aggregate, rather than as separate, local issues, we can start to see the disturbing patterns of negligence, apathy and harm. Disasters like in Flint are part of a larger national failure, and our delayed and insufficient response is a public display of a larger, more heinous truth: America still hasn’t decided that clean water and a safe environment is not a privilege, but a right. An investment in our infrastructure and a commitment to maintaining accountability and transparency, when done right, is a commitment to just and equitable policy – and an affirmation that everyone deserves to live in an environment that is safe and healthy.

Even five years later, the Flint water crisis remains a crucial talking point for those looking to highlight the many inadequacies in government responses to disasters. It’s been highlighted by celebrities, Miss America pageant contestants, presidential candidates, and Twitter users expressing their frustration towards what they perceive as less important funding priorities, but that righteous anger hasn’t translated to a fury scaled for the national catastrophe we’re heading towards.

Clean water and a safe environment is not a privilege, but a right.

It’s not that the public is wholly apathetic to the dramatic consequences of a lack of investment in our country’s infrastructure. Poll after poll actually indicates that voters support federal spending on infrastructure improvements. In the 2016 and 2018 elections, there were local ballot measures that centered the need for more funding for infrastructure priorities – and many of them passed with voter support. However, that intensity of local support across the nation was focused on transportation issues rather than issues of water and sewage systems, broadband or electric utilities, of which privatization can further complicate matters. And even as voters express support for infrastructure measures, their higher priorities often still lie in policy areas such as the economy, health care, and education — all issues that can feel more immediate and pressing despite their inextricable links to the basic facilities and systems that America relies on.

To ensure that our infrastructure stops poisoning us today and in the future, we must redress the public policies and actions that segregate and neglect communities as well as earnestly hold accountable public officials, corporations, and landlords who put and keep people in harm’s way. And, ultimately, we must prioritize preventing these transgressions in the first place. Government, at all levels, must comprehensively support and provide restitution for the individuals and families poisoned for life because of lead and other preventable toxicant-exposures born from our compromised infrastructure.

Ultimately, Congress must seek to go beyond just getting out of our nation’s $2 trillion repair funding hole or fulfilling the hollow infrastructure promise of the current commander in chief. To truly end the ongoing poisoning and ensure that no community has to ever again suffer from this type of preventable, man-made infrastructure crises, the federal government will need to enact a full-scale, innovative package of national investments that helps harmed communities remediate and rebuild, improves the nation’s standard of living, restores public oversight and reasserts local control over the vital building blocks that make healthy, just, and thriving communities. Without that commitment, we’ll watch crises like Flint continue to unfold across the nation – and this time, we won’t be able to feign surprise. The lives of residents in Flint, and the thousands of other communities just like it, depend on it.