It was Julie Liles’ 17-year-old daughter, Emily, who suggested that they attend a sex education program together.
Julie was eager to go. She was just 14 when she gave birth to Emily.
“So always in the back of my mind was a worry that she would get hurt,” says Julie, her voice cracking. “I worried in the back of my mind that she would find herself in the same situation.”
The mother-daughter pair spent an entire Saturday holed up at a local high school talking about relationships, love and, yes, sex. The five-hour seminar called Linking Families and Teens, or LiFT, included group discussions and role-playing to help parents and kids get comfortable talking about dating and sex.
“It was almost instantly that I felt that I could talk to my daughter in a different way, without automatically jumping to assumptions or, you know, just cutting her off and being angry or being embarrassed,” Liles says.
LiFT is the only sex education program available in her rural community of Shelton, Wash., she says.
But come July, LiFT will be gone. The Trump administration cut off the grant funding for it when the Department of Health and Human Services eliminated the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program.
Now the Planned Parenthood chapter, along with eight other groups, is suing HHS, saying it acted unlawfully when it canceled their five-year grants midstream and with no explanation. The organizations — which include city and county health departments, universities, hospitals and nonprofit organizations — operate across the U.S. providing sex education and health information to more than a million teens.
The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program has been lauded by watchdogs as an example of good government at work. The program grants 80 percent of its budget to groups that implement pregnancy prevention programs that have been shown to be effective. The remaining 20 percent is dedicated to trying new strategies.
The efforts are focused on African-American and Hispanic teens, who have higher pregnancy rates, and those in low-income and rural areas.
And the organizations are required to measure whether their programs are effective in reducing pregnancy, delaying teen sex or increasing contraception use. The plans was to scale up the projects that work and eliminate the ones that don’t.
“There’s a list of proven effective programs that has been developed over time specifically through a lot of these grants,” says Carrie Flaxman, counsel for Planned Parenthood.
Programs like the ones used in Baltimore’s schools.
The Healthy Teen Network helps the city choose its sex education curriculum, using social and demographic data to make sure it meets the needs of teens, says Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the network.
The tiny nonprofit has been working to reduce teen pregnancy for 40 years. But now its work is threatened because more than a third of its budget comes from the HHS program.
Paluzzi says the only notice she got that the five-year grant was being eliminated after just three years came in tiny print in the middle of its renewal notice in July.
The Healthy Teen Network also is using federal grant money to create a web app to help teens make choices about sex and dating and to give them information about reproduction, birth control, safety and health care. It is in the process of launching an app designed for 15- to 17-year-olds and is designing a second one for people aged 18 to 20.
The original app – called CrushApp.org – “tells you things like how does a pregnancy occur,” Paluzzi says. “A lot of people don’t actually know where pregnancy occurs.”
A section called “Love & Sex” offers menu options such as “Is He A Keeper?” and “Put One On” about using condoms. There are cartoons and animated videos to help teens navigate relationships, dating and sex.
Work on the CrushApp will continue, Paluzzi says, but work on the second app is ending in July. The group already eliminated three jobs and is planning to move to smaller, cheaper office space.
The Healthy Teen Network and the other groups are suing in U.S. district courts in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Washington state. They accuse the Trump administration of cutting off their grants with no regard for the federal rules that dictate when a grant can be terminated.
HHS in July notified all the grantees that their money would be cut. A few were terminated immediately, and the remainder were granted one more year.
An HHS spokeswoman said the agency ended the program because it’s not effective.
“Teen birth rates have been declining since 1992 and less than 1 percent of the teen population has been served by TPP,” the spokeswoman, who declined to be named, said in an email. “Of the 37 projects funded and evaluated for a 2016 report, 73 percent had no impact or had a negative impact on teen behavior.”
Trump’s budget proposal instead has $75 million for abstinence education programs. Research has shown that “abstinence-only education rarely has a positive effect on teen sexual behavior,” according to a 2014 analysis of sex education.
Teen pregnancy rates have plummeted in the three decades from about 60 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, to just 24 in 2014. Still, the U.S. has a far higher teen pregnancy and birthrate than most developed countries.
Paluzzi says she is unhappy about the cuts to her organization. But she is more concerned about all the money already spent to develop effective sex education programs that she fears will go to waste, and the knowledge gained will be lost.
“It’s a huge waste of taxpayers’ money,” she says. “But the bigger issue is that we predict we’ll start to see teen birthrates go back up again. And that’s the real shame of it. Organizations can come and go but the young people they deserve better than that.”