Three women in California are suing a government-funded foster home for allegedly denying them the right to contraception and reproductive-health services. Worse than the inability to use birth control or condoms, they say, was the punishment they faced for trying.
The 18-year-old plaintiffs are all former residents of Promesa Behavioral Health, a foster agency with seven group homes in central California. While at the homes—which they were sent to after their families were deemed abusive—the three women say they were confined to a strict no-sex policy, which they were forced to agree to in writing upon arrival.
But the policing of their bodies, according to the 25-page complaint, did not stop there. The girls were banned from getting contraception and were told that a staff member was required to be in any appointments with an OB/GYN. Any attempts to obtain contraception were stopped by staff, who regularly confiscated condoms.
Promesa, which translates to “promise,” provides care and housing to children who have suffered abuse and neglect. Billing itself as the “last hope” for young people, its stated mission is to “act as a model nonprofit organization creating tangible, measurable and accountable community benefits by providing safe, sensitive, and therapeutic environments and treatment.”
The majority of the organization’s funding comes from the government, as outlined in the company’s annual reports each year. In 2014 alone, the group received $4.7 million in funding to carry out its operations, which include foster homes, adoption services, and substance abuse treatment.
In operation since 1988, the company boasts an impressive number of success stories on Facebook and Twitter, both of which have strong followings. Testimonials on its website offer a glowing picture of an organization that seems devoted to improving the course of young peoples’ lives.
The lawsuit paints a different picture.
According to the plaintiffs, orientation into Promesa’s foster program began with the requirement that they sign a large amount of paperwork. One page allegedly included a consent form in which they agreed to “avoid participating in sexual activity.” Once initiated into the house, the three say they were constantly reminded of the policy and punished by having their rights revoked when they were caught breaking it.
One plaintiff, known as S.H., moved into a Promesa home at the age of 14 after enduring years of sexual abuse from her stepfather. She says the staff confiscated condoms from her bedroom and told her that if they found proof she was having sex they would no longer allow her to visit her mom and daughter, whom she had at the age of 16.
When she requested to visit Planned Parenthood to inquire about getting birth control for her irregular period, the staff refused. Instead, they took her to a different doctor where she discovered she was pregnant. The staff allegedly insisted she abort the child and, when she refused, denied her visiting rights with her family.
It wasn’t until S.H. miscarried that the staff allowed her to obtain contraceptives. Afterward, S.H. says the staff demanded she grant permission for her doctor to share the details of subsequent reproductive health visits. When she refused, the agency gave her seven days to move out.
The second plaintiff, A.Z., has a similar story. After suffering physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her family, she was put into a Promesa house at the age of 16. A.Z. was required to sign paperwork in which she promised not to have sex and was warned that failure to follow the rules would result in an “R”—a disciplinary action in which privileges like watching TV or listening to music are revoked.
A.Z. says she attempted to get the birth control shot but was refused by staff who told her she didn’t need it since she was not allowed to engage in sexual activity. When she then asked to be taken to Planned Parenthood, in order to obtain alternate forms of contraception, they refused. After learning that she had taken her concerns to professional counsel, the agency allegedly gave her seven days to move out.
Beyond the unconstitutional nature of prohibiting young girls from engaging in sexual activity and obtaining birth control, lead attorney Leecia Welch says it’s putting an already at-risk population in danger.
“Foster youth are at high risk for unplanned pregnancy, and, as their caretakers, foster care providers should be doing all they can to keep them safe,” Welch told The Daily Beast. “Confiscating their condoms is not just bad public policy, it also violates their rights.”
Indeed the rates of unwanted pregnancy among the foster population are high. Much of this is due to the fact that these kids are often subjected to physical and sexual abuse and “low-level parenting”—major indicators for unwanted pregnancy. A 2013 study from the Child Abuse & Neglect journal found that more than one-third of women in California’s foster system will give birth at least once before age 21.
Promesa sent the following statement to The Daily Beast’s request for comment: “We have no knowledge of the lawsuit to which you are referring, nor have we been served at this time.”
Based on Welch’s comments, Promesa’s denial is odd. Not only was the agency sent the complaint Tuesday, but the lawsuit has been in the works for years.
“We have been told by former residents at Promesa that these violations have been happening at Promesa for years,” says Welch. “We raised the concerns with Promesa in November, but they have been unwilling to work with us to adequately address them.”