Friday, August 12, 2022

Records Show Reeves Staff Did Sparse Analysis to Draft Post-Roe Agenda

By Anna Wolfe

Mississippi Today

In preparing for the next phase of the “pro-life agenda” following the fall of Roe v. Wade, Gov. Tate Reeves boasted publicly that his staff conducted a thorough review of Mississippi law to find ways to improve the current environment for people expecting to give birth.

But there’s no written record of this analysis, according to documents Mississippi Today obtained through a public records request.

Instead, records show the administration briefly consulted with four people by email — two anti-abortion advocates of Choose Life MS, a pediatrician and a local judge — and gathered template legislation written by Washington-based Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, one of the most powerful anti-abortion lobbying groups in the nation.

A Reeves spokesperson said the “thorough analysis” the governor has discussed publicly was a verbal briefing, not a written document, which is why the office didn’t produce more to the news organization.

Last January, Reeves’ policy advisor Kristen Windham wrote an email to Janet Thomas, director of Choose Life MS, saying, “I enjoyed our meeting last week and appreciate the willingness to help Governor Reeves develop a plan going forward.”

Choose Life MS, led by its president and longtime anti-abortion lobbyist Terri Herring, is a private advocacy nonprofit that collects and disburses funding to crisis pregnancy centers — organizations known for persuading pregnant women against abortion. The Legislature has given Herring’s organization power over which pregnancy centers will be able to receive newly created tax credits by including in statute that the credits will be reserved for nonprofits that are eligible under Choose Life MS’s grant program.

Windham also corresponded with Hattiesburg pediatrician Anita Henderson, president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who had a different take on what a “pro-life agenda” would look like. Henderson recommended the state extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a year — a proposal with bipartisan support that Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn killed in 2022.

“Not sure if he (Reeves) would be interested in meeting with her,” Windham wrote in an email, forwarding Henderson’s recommendation to another Reeves staffer.

Reeves has yet to meet with the pediatrician, Henderson told Mississippi Today. Plus, Henderson reached out to the governor’s office, not the other way around.

“Postpartum care is low-hanging fruit,” Henderson said. “It is a really easy option to show moms and babies that they’re supported.”

Henderson noted that after making abortion illegal, Mississippi could see an additional 3,500 babies born per year, and with a preterm birth rate of 14%, that could translate to 500 more babies in neonatal intensive care. Additionally, the number of children in Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services custody could likewise increase.

In recent State of the State addresses, Reeves promised to take action to “make Mississippi the safest and most supportive state in the country for mothers,” and “make it even easier to adopt … to ensure that these children are not twice-abandoned.” He asked his staff to work on a plan to accomplish this.

As a result of their efforts, the governor’s office has drafted a policy agenda which centers on directing an unspecified amount of public funding to crisis pregnancy centers, reforming the state’s youth court system and offering new cash incentives to adoptive parents.

The plan does not address extending postpartum Medicaid coverage — a policy supported by several advocacy groups and many Republican lawmakers — or providing direct assistance to low-income expectant mothers.

“One issue that needs constant attention, however, is the resources available to children of parents facing long-term incarceration or even those who are on probation but struggling to provide the care and attention needed,” Judge Toni Terrett, a circuit court judge in the western region of the state, told a Reeves staffer by email in January. “The answer may not always be adoption in those situations, but these children may need special attention to make sure they are not lost in the shuffle.”

Terrett told Mississippi Today that since offering her initial advice, she has not had any more conversations with the office.

In recent years, Mississippi has led the nation in reducing its notoriously backlogged CPS caseload, while promising to unify families instead of separating them. But at the same time, the state has failed to pull down available federal funding to help families in poverty care for their children through prevention services, while welfare officials misspent millions that could have been used for this purpose. Experts say an emphasis on incentivizing adoption and increasing CPS intervention could reverse the state’s progress and perpetuate trauma.

“I’m all for it. Give as much financial assistance as you possibly can. But if you’re stopping at wanting to give it to everyone but the biological family, then you have a flaw in your logic,” said attorney Kimberly Russell, who previously led child welfare efforts under the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi and the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Also, absent from the governor’s agenda are any plans to improve access to education for young women and mothers, though Reeves recently said in an interview that providing educational opportunities would be “the best thing we can do for them.”

The three-page Reeves administration policy agenda, drafted before the U.S. Supreme Court decision and titled “Possible actions ahead of life-favoring Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs case,” proposes six measures. It is published here for the first time:

  • Enact Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America’s “Support for Mothers and Babies Act”: Create a competitive grant for crisis pregnancy centers, which includes reporting requirements and auditing procedures
  • Statewide judicial reform: Create a uniform, state-funded youth court and more rapid pathways for permanent placement; provide state funding for parent representatives; allow county prosecutors to terminate parental rights
  • Increased adoption incentives: Create a multi-year grant award for parents who adopt children in CPS custody – $20,000 over four years, for example.
  • Extended “Safe Haven” law: Increase the amount of time a mother is allowed to relinquish her child after birth, which is currently 72 hours; the agenda doesn’t provide a specific number, but cites other states that allow up to seven days, 30 days, or even as long as a year.
  • Roundtable discussions: Gather representatives from CPS, centers for pregnancy choices, pregnancy help organizations, adoption agencies, hospitals, clinics and Medicaid to communicate “about the overall process.”
  • Address current CPS case backlog: Fund special youth court judges, prosecutors and caseworkers to reduce adoption and custody cases.

Reeves has touted a bill he signed this year, the Pregnancy Resource Act, which provides $3.5 million in tax credits to donors of eligible pregnancy resource centers and crisis pregnancy centers. Centers must meet requirements under Choose Life MS’s grant program to qualify.

Getty Israel, founder of community health organization Sisters in Birth, which is in the process of opening a birthing center, said she met a dead end when trying to secure eligibility from Choose Life MS.

“You gotta get the blessing of the Mississippi pro-life people,” Israel said. “… You gotta be a part of this clique, this political clique, this so-called pro-life clique or anti-abortion clique, in order to take advantage of that tax credit. That sounds very, very much like discrimination to me.” 

In the past, Israel turned down a small donation from Choose Life MS because she said the process was too invasive – requiring her to add its logo to her website, for example.

Israel also met last year with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America organizers, who represented that they were eager to provide evidenced-based programs for pregnant women and asked her for a “wish list” of resources. Israel sent the list, but she said nothing ever came of it. 

This wasn’t a surprise to Israel, who said the Legislature has consistently turned down resources for the tangible services her organization provides.

“They (Republican leadership) are just not serious about improving health outcomes among women who are gonna become pregnant and making sure those babies are born full-term, but with all their limbs and healthy, and that they can thrive. They just want babies to be born. That’s a political check,” Israel said. “I have never been able to get Tate Reeves’ office to even allow me to meet with him or anyone there. I’ve been trying for years.” 

As part of its work with the governor’s office, Choose Life MS also conducted a survey of 14 pregnancy help organizations to gauge their needs and shared the results. Some of the needs the centers identified included increased shelter capacity, transportation, fatherhood programs, mental health services, websites, mobile units, a washer and dryer and sonogram services.

Henderson said transportation and assistance in applying to Medicaid are two needs that pregnancy centers could consider meeting.

“Over half of the counties in Mississippi do not have an OBGYN. So moms are traveling significant distances to see their doctor, which costs gas money, time, and loss of work. Those are reasons that many moms delay care or miss GYN visits,” she said. “The other thing I see … moms who find out that they are pregnant, when they apply for Medicaid, it can take a month for their Medicaid application to go through for them to learn that they are eligible. So that is a month lost, in terms of prenatal care, prenatal vitamins, testing and treatment.”

Currently, Choose Life MS collects revenue from the sale of specialty car tags and distributes the funding to about 40 of these organizations – which are noticeably sparse in the Delta and southwest Mississippi, areas with higher Black populations. If the tax credits were evenly distributed, each center would benefit from $87,500 in tax-exempt donations.

In 2016, Choose Life MS said it had exceeded $3 million in revenue from car tags since 2002 and that number is now $3.5 million, according to its website. The nonprofit’s annual revenue, according to its 990 forms, is around just under $150,000 a year and has been on the decline.

In some states, governors have chosen to use funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare, to subsidize pregnancy centers. With its proposed legislation, Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America aims to get more direct legislative appropriations to these organizations so they don’t rely on political whims from year to year.

“I have watched over the years, and it’s certainly not perfect by any stretch, but since 1973, since Roe, the social services delivery system, the smorgasbord of services available to families and children has grown tremendously,” said Susan Liebel, director of state affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “… The trick is to get, of course, the right services in the right places with the right people who need them in the time that they need them. That’s the trick.”

But some public health professionals, like Israel, are skeptical about the mission and capacity of the existing centers.

“I made it very clear that I wasn’t impressed with what the pregnancy resource centers were doing, simply discouraging women to have an abortion and not helping pregnant women,” Israel said of her conversations with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “They (crisis pregnancy centers) are not willing to refer their clients to me and I’m offering all these services and I’m right here in the city of Jackson. And this is my area of expertise. But they won’t refer patients to me because I don’t agree with their religious and political agenda.”

Herring, who has direct lines with Reeves’ office on crafting future plans, did not respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for an interview for this story.

Herring, a failed Gov. Phil Bryant nominee to the Mississippi State Health Department board and part of the “pro-life coalition” Reeves announced in 2019, appears to be a darling of Republican leadership.

In 2019, after the Senate passed another restrictive abortion ban under his leadership, Reeves called Herring out by name, tweeting, “Thank you to @Terri_Herring and other pro-life Mississippians who worked and prayed for this. Your work will save lives.”

***

See the entirety of the governor’s office response to Mississippi Today’s public records request at the link below:

https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/22080200/prr-wolfe-production-7_6_22.pdf


This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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