Reproductive freedom and the right to privacy, for minors especially, can be murky territory, with laws differing from state-to-state. In fact, only 26 states and the District of Columbia currently allow minors aged 12 or older to receive contraceptive services without parental approval. But how do these rights work when there’s no parent or guardian involved? What if contraception is legally permissible for minors in a state, but another party steps in and assumes the role of the guardian in making these decisions regarding their right to reproductive health care? One Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group member in California found out the hard way — read below for their experience.
A California nonprofit group home for foster teens was sued by current and former residents asserting a violation of their right to privacy and a denial of their access to reproductive health care. The group home required the teens, as a matter of policy, to be abstinent in order to reside in the group home. While they had no formal policy prohibiting residents from obtaining birth control, the group home admitted taking condoms and other forms of birth control away from the teen residents and penalizing them under their privilege-earning system for possession of what they deemed contraband. The suit also alleged that access to reproductive health care appointments was restricted, and that the teens were not allowed to meet alone with their medical care provider, if requested. The teens were represented by two national, nonprofit public interest law firms that promote youth and reproductive health care rights. The lawsuit sought damages and injunctive relief, which is a court order prohibiting the group home from continuing its practices in this regard, and attorney’s fees under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA). The suit received extensive publicity.
The lawsuit was based on a violation of the right to privacy guaranteed under Article I, Section 1 of the California Constitution, which applies to public, as well as private entities. It also alleged negligence of the nonprofit for failure to supervise, evaluate and train childcare staff to ensure that they understood the healthcare rights of foster youth as required under California regulations, which includes the right to confidentiality and access to reproductive health care. The suit also alleged failure to follow the Caregiver Resource Handbook issued by the county (which placed the teens in foster care) as it pertained to reproductive healthcare.
While the suit was founded primarily on California law, it did cite the federal case Arneth v. Gross, which determined that the right to access reproductive health care extends to minors in foster care. Under the more narrow federal right to privacy, the Arneth court found that “minors have a constitutional privacy right to practice artificial contraception absent compelling state considerations to the contrary, and this is not diminished because they are in foster care.”
Due to the risks of a large potential damage award, and negative publicity, this case was settled in mediation. While each of the five claimants received a modest settlement of $5,000, the plaintiffs sought an attorney’s fees award available under PAGA. When this issue was submitted to arbitration, the plaintiff’s attorneys were awarded a staggering $400,000.
Access to reproductive health care rights for those in residential care is highly regulated by local, state, and federal statutes, as well as the state and federal constitutions. As this claim demonstrates, impairment of those rights can be a huge risk to a nonprofit residential care provider. To avoid such a claim, nonprofits must understand the rules and laws of their jurisdiction concerning the right to reproductive health care for those in their custodial care, and adopt policies and train staff to ensure that those rights are respected and preserved.
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