When the reproductive-rights watchdog Equity Forward received an invoice for its records request to the Missouri Department of Social Services, the bill came as a shock: $26,291.18.
“We’ve never gotten a request in the five digits, tens of thousands of dollars before,” said Molly Bangs, the New York-based group’s director. “This was pretty out of the park.”
The Dec. 4 request was seeking communications with Alliance for Life Missouri, a nonprofit contracted to help administer the state’s Alternatives to Abortion Program. The taxpayer-funded program aims to help women in need carry through with their pregnancies, providing services ranging from housing to adoption assistance to prenatal care.
Equity Forward, which has filed similar requests in numerous states, requested more than two years of correspondence between the Missouri Department of Social Services and fifteen Alliance for Life Missouri representatives. It was hoping to better understand Alliance for Life Missouri’s role in administering the program through subcontractors and learn about what level of oversight exists.
Whether or not it will ever get any portion of the 47,354 emails the department says the request turned up remains to be seen. Bangs said Equity Forward couldn’t afford the high fee — and neither could the average Missourian.
“These are records that are supposed to be available to every citizen,” she said, “and certainly shouldn’t be costing them tens of thousands of dollars to get some simple answers in terms of how these taxpayer dollar programs are operated.”
Alliance for Life Missouri is just one of the contractors for the program and has participated since 2006. The nonprofit works to foster “a culture of life,” and has previously state that it exists to promote the work of “Christ-centered, pro-life efforts in Missouri and the Midwest.”
Marsha Middleton, the group’s CEO, said she would expect a large number of emails between her organization and the department over a two-and-half year period.
“We are in constant communication on a weekly basis. Sometimes in a week, we may communicate with (the program manager) everyday, several times a day, because we do have lots of questions about different things that we can cover under the program,” Middleton said, later adding: “I just know the program works and works well. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do, so I’m not sure what they’re digging for.”
While the invoice was the highest Equity Forward has ever received, Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association who often deals with the state’s Sunshine Law, said she wasn’t surprised.
“This is not unusual when you do a broad request [that] way for a lot of records that could be controversial,” Maneke said.
An invoice DSS provided to Equity Forward estimated producing the records would take 789 hours at a cost of $15.32 per hour and 394 hours at a cost of $36.05 per hour.
“A production of this size would require several months of staff time,” read a letter from Alex Daskalakis, a special counsel for DSS, explaining the cost to Equity Forward.
The Missouri Supreme Court is currently weighing to what extent public bodies can charge fees to search and produce records, in response to a lawsuit filed against the governor’s office after it charged $3,618 to process an open records request related to former Gov. Eric Greitens.
Missourians who think government agencies are violating their rights to access public documents have few means of recourse.
They can file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office — whose enforcement is often limited in cases involving the executive branch and state agencies — or they can find a lawyer and sue.
“There’s limited ability to protect your interest as a citizen,” said Maneke, who has advocated for an independent public advocate to help address those issues.
Even state lawmakers aren’t immune to the high cost of public records.
During a legislative hearing earlier this month, Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, recounted $6,000 bills and a yearlong wait lawmakers have faced for records from the Department of Social Services.
In response, Unsicker attached language to the proposed DSS budget requiring it to cover any costs associated with producing records for lawmakers and provide information within 10 days.
‘Alternatives to Abortion’
Equity Forward’s records request centered on finding out more information about Missouri’s Alternatives to Abortion Program.
Serving women who fall at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level — which is $49,025 annually for a family of four in 2021 — the program provides support at no cost for up to a year after a child is born.
Although it has been funded since the late 1990s, the program was written into state law in 2007 and has seen increases in its funding ever since.
For fiscal year 2017, in addition to a little over $2 million in state funds, the program received a boost of $4.3 million in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. The same amount is currently slated in the proposed budget bill for the department.
Samuel Lee, a lobbyist and veteran anti-abortion activist, said the program helped ensure the state was providing alternatives for pregnant women.
“When it comes to women, whether we’re talking about low-income or they have a crisis and are pregnant, some choose abortion,” Lee said. “But for those who don’t really want to, but feel like they don’t have a choice, this gives them a choice.”
Some of the participating organizations are crisis pregnancy centers, many of which have been found to provide misleading information to women about their full spectrum of options.
“Our position is that the public really deserves to know how that program is being run behind the scenes, given that there is very little oversight or reporting requirements baked into the contract between the two entities,” Bangs said of DSS and contractors such as Alliance for Life Missouri.
For years, state lawmakers have proposed bills that would restrict state funds to organizations providing pregnancy-related services unless they provide “medically accurate and unbiased information” verified by medical research and leading medical organizations.
Lee said such bills were an attempt to end services such as the Alternatives to Abortion Program, whose providers are restricted under state law from performing or referring clients to abortion services.
Middleton said the 31 subcontractors Alliance for Life Missouri works with are held to the same standards their organization is, including having licensed health care professionals and social workers.
“They meet the standards across the board, because our contract that we have with our subcontractors is the exact same contract that we have with the state of Missouri,” Middleton said.
For Bangs, it’s important to have tools such as public records requests to ensure that’s the case.
“We will not be deterred,” she said, “from using public records to seek more information around this program in the future.”
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.