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Court case could impact transparency, public scrutiny of certain organizations that get state funding

Carolyn Kaster

On today’s episode of The Confluence: A lawsuit being heard in Commonwealth Court next week may make public the financial records of centers offering alternatives to abortion; Steel Smiling has raised half a million dollars in its effort to give all Black Pittsburghers a positive mental health experience; and Pittsburgh-based author Angela Velez tells us about her new young-adult novel, “Lulu and Milagro’s Search for Clarity.”

Arguments scheduled in Commonwealth Court to access more documents from a state contractor
(0:00 - 7:02)

Commonwealth Court will hear arguments Mondayin a lawsuit filed by a Equity Forward, a reproductive rights organization, against the Department of Human Services. Equity Forward is seeking the financial records of Real Alternatives, social services organization that contracts with the state. From 2012 to 2017, Real Alternatives received more than $30.2 million in taxpayer dollars

Cassie Miller, a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, says this is one of the longest cases involving a right-to-know request that she’s seen.

“In 2017,former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale had done an investigation on Real Alternativesand had noted some things that were concerning as far as transparency, as far as how that money was being spent,” Miller says. “There were concerns in the report regarding whether or not the money that was given by the Pennsylvania state legislature was actually being spent in Pennsylvania.”

Miller explains that Equity Forward is seeking documentation to find out how state funds provided to Real Alternatives is being spent and if it’s leaving the state. She reports that Equity Forward is looking to review “secondary agreements between Real Alternatives and its service provider subcontractors.”

Real Alternatives told Miller in an e-mailed statement that Equity Forward is “weaponizing” the Right-to-Know law to get this documentation.

Ultimately, Miller says, this case could impact who is subject to the state’s open record law.

“It's not just about reproductive rights or wherever you fall in that debate,” she explains. “It's very much a transparency thing. And, you know, are those organizations that contract with the state subject to this scrutiny in the future?”

Steel Smiling has raised more than $500,000 to support the mental health of Black residents 
(7:06 - 13:30)

President Joe Biden highlighted mental health as part of his “unity agenda” in his State of the Union address .

“Let’s get all Americans the mental health services they need,” said Biden. “More people [they] can turn [to] for help, and full parity between physical and mental health care.”

A local non-profit, Steel Smiling, is already attempting to fill that need in Pittsburgh. The organization looks to bridge the gap between Black residents in Allegheny county and mental health resources. Earlier this year, the organization announced it had raised more than half a million dollars to do so.

“More people now than ever are reaching out for mental health support,” says Steel Smiling’s founder and managing director, Julius Boatwright. “We would never be in a position to have enough funding to adequately meet the needs. So, that is just something that continues to fuel the work that we do, so that we can be in a position to adequately meet those needs of Black Pittsburghers.”

Boatwright says to meet the mental health needs for all Black residents in Allegheny County, it would take about $84 million.

Steel Smiling has two core programs: Beams to Bridges and the Black Mental Health Fund. The former is a workforce development program that trains people in communities to become mental health advocates. The Black Mental Health Fund provides financial assistance for mental health treatment and support.

“We also do youth programming as well, so we're helping them develop coping skills and learn about meditation and mindfulness,” he explains. “Working with schools, government officials, other community-based organizations to help them serve and meet the mental health and wellness needs of Black populations that they serve.”

Pittsburgh author’s debut novel centers teenage sisters on a road trip
(13:34 - 18:30)

Pittsburgh-based writer Angela Velez has published her first book. The young-adult novel is called “Lulu and Milagro’s Search for Clarity.” Velez is the daughter of Peruvian immigrants and grew up in Baltimore.

90.5 WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll spoke to Velez about how she describes her book.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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