A major legal services program for immigrant children says a federal agency has pulled back an earlier order prohibiting government-funded lawyers nationwide from discussing abortion rights with minors in custody.
The restrictions on what attorneys could tell young detainees were communicated this month by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which said it acted at the direction of a Department of Health and Human Services employee.
The nonprofit group told its lawyers in an email that the legal services program, funded through a multimillion-dollar contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), was at risk if its attorneys answered questions about abortion rights. The instruction coincided with efforts in federal court by the head of ORR to block access to abortion procedures for undocumented teens in federal custody.
In response to questions last week from The Washington Post, HHS said in a statement that it had “not issued a new directive on the matter of abortion.” The department declined to say whether the contract was in jeopardy if lawyers answered questions about abortion from the minors.
Vera officials said in a statement on Thursday that they contacted the government office within HHS because “ORR’s claim in the Washington Post on February 15 that there was no directive contradicts its original position. In the face of this, we are actively seeking clarification from them with the aim of returning to our original practices as soon as possible.”
On Friday, Vera officials said in an updated statement that ORR had “approved Vera’s rescinding the instructions to its subcontractors.”
“We immediately informed our legal service provider partners that they were authorized to return to their original practices,” according to Vera.
The government pays $57 million a year under a five-year contract to Vera, which subcontracts with organizations throughout the country to provide legal help to minors who have entered the United States illegally and without their parents.
An HHS spokesman on Tuesday attributed the back-and-forth between the government and the nonprofit to a “miscommunication.”
HHS officials told Vera on Friday that “since HHS did not issue instructions, there are no changes and it should probably be rescinded,” the spokesman said.
Immigrants, including unaccompanied minors, are not entitled to government-appointed lawyers in immigration court. With federal money, Vera serves 50,000 children a year, providing one-on-one legal screenings, advising minors of their rights and defending them in deportation proceedings.
Legal experts raised concerns last week about restrictions on government-funded lawyers that they said threatened the role of attorneys as independent advocates. In its initial email, Vera said lawyers could refer children with questions to other attorneys not funded by the federal government and later emphasized that the instruction did not apply to lawyers providing legal representation.
The Vera Institute’s email to its lawyers also noted the importance of the abortion issue to the new head of ORR responsible for the care of about 7,700 minors in custody.
E. Scott Lloyd, the ORR director, has refused to “facilitate” abortion procedures for pregnant minors in custody, leading to a pending lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Four pregnant teens in custody have gone to court in Washington to try to force the Trump administration to stop blocking access to abortion services.