PIERRE, SD – Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration issued contradictory reasons for terminating a transgender advocacy group’s contract with the state Department of Health.
A Friday letter from the department alleged numerous contract violations committed by the group, while the governor’s spokesman told the conservative media outlet that first reported on the letter that Noem does not support the group’s efforts or “dividing our youth with radical ideologies.”
Meanwhile, the secretary of the state Department of Health announced her retirement Monday amid unconfirmed speculation that the two events could be related.
The contract was with The Transformation Project, a transgender advocacy group based in Sioux Falls.
The contract helped fund the implementation of a community health worker at the organization, using $136,000 in federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state’s online financial reporting system says The Transformation Project has received about $23,000 in payments from the state so far this fiscal year.
The grant awarded to The Transformation Project lists the federal funding source as the “Health Disparity Grant,” and was categorized as “Federal COVID” spending. South Dakota was awarded $37.4 million in CDC Health Disparity Grant funding in 2021, with $17.8 million carved out for rural services.
Letter and retirement
A termination letter to the organization’s leadership on Friday, revealed by The Daily Signal, included a list of contract violations, including failing to submit quarterly reports and failing to attend a conference.
“South Dakota does not support this organization’s efforts, and state government should not be participating in them,” Noem told The Daily Signal in a statement provided by spokesman Ian Fury. “We should not be dividing our youth with radical ideologies. We should treat every single individual equally as a human being.”
Fury added that the state is reviewing all Department of Health contracts and that the contract was signed without Noem’s prior knowledge or approval.
Department of Health Secretary Joan Adam, who held the position since March, announced her retirement Monday. Adam said she was retiring to focus on “family and personal commitments,” ending her 20-year career with the department.
“My time with the Department of Health has been very rewarding,” Adam said in a news release issued by Fury. “The dedication of the department’s employees is impressive and will continue to serve the state well.”
On her behalf, her husband Karl Adam, former state Republican Party chairman, said she would not comment on her retirement or whether it was related to the terminated contract. The Transformation Project has not responded to South Dakota Searchlight requests for comment.
The Department of Health did not respond to a detailed list of questions asking for clarification as to how many grantees had failed to meet similar benchmarks.
Members of the South Dakota Freedom Caucus, a group of lawmakers, said it plans to introduce legislation next session to ban gender-affirming procedures for transgender youth. The U.S. Department of Justice has challenged bans in other states.
The South Dakota Legislature has a history of legislation labeled as anti-transgender by critics, including passing a law banning transgender girls from participating in girls sports.
Money designed in part to aid marginalized communities
A community health worker (CHW) is a frontline public health and social services worker who is “a trusted member” of the community served. A CHW helps connect South Dakotans to public services.
The award to The Transformation Project aligned with one of the broad-brush goals of the federal grant funding program’s benchmarks. The LGBTQ community is among those listed as potential targets for assistance in the grant’s documentation. The health disparity grant from the CDC also notes rural populations as historically underserved.
Further guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of which the CDC is a part, listed more specific guidelines on grant-worthy CHWs in 2022. The document urges programs to focus on marginalized groups who historically have had difficulty accessing such services, such as people of color, non-English speakers or members of the LGBTQ community.
The Transformation Project has been an outspoken advocacy group for transgender youth in South Dakota, as the demographic faces discrimination and hostility, leading to depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts, experts say.
The Transformation Project is one of over 50 organizations to receive funding for CHW initiatives, according to Open SD. The contract began in June.
South Dakota Voices for Peace was among the other grant funding recipients. For that group, the goal was to hire two CHWs to help those who do not speak English connect to services, said Executive Director Taneeza Islam.
A referral alone won’t be enough for someone who doesn’t speak English, Islam said. Navigating the nuances of applications for help or traveling to the places where services are located can be especially difficult for people without resources or English proficiency.
“For our clients specifically, it’s very basic needs: food, transportation, domestic violence services,” Islam said.
The Union Gospel Mission in Sioux Falls was also a grant recipient. That homeless shelter had hired CHWs before the funding appeared, CEO Eric Weber said, because the typical locale for such workers – hospitals and clinics – tended to be far away from those who needed the help.
“We needed to have CHWs on the street, where the people are. We needed to have them walking Eighth Street,” said Weber, referring to the street in Sioux Falls that’s home to two shelters and a soup kitchen.
The CHW, Weber said, is the hand that “leads the horse to water,” while the resources or services themselves, such as food pantries or community health clinics, are like the water.
“Our CHWs work with 200 or 300 people a week,” Weber said.
Islam and Weber said they had not received any calls from the DOH questioning their compliance with their contractor requirements.
Weber described the Department of Health employees with whom he’s worked on the CHW grant as “a very diverse group” and questioned whether any would have trouble funding the work of The Transformation Project.
That group’s work, like the Union Gospel Mission’s, he said, fills an important need.
“My heart goes out to them,” Weber said.
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