Noem’s health chief retires amid scrutiny of trans advocate

December 19, 2022 GMT
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her budget address for the fiscal year 2024 on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in the House Chambers at the State Capitol in Pierre, S.D. (Matt Gade/Rapid City Journal via AP)
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem delivers her budget address for the fiscal year 2024 on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022, in the House Chambers at the State Capitol in Pierre, S.D. (Matt Gade/Rapid City Journal via AP)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s Cabinet secretary overseeing the state’s health department announced her resignation Monday amid criticism from conservatives over the Republican governor’s administration rewarding a community health care grant to an organization that advocates for transgender people.

The governor’s office said in a statement that Secretary of Health Joan Adam, who has held the position since March, was retiring to focus on “family and personal commitments.” But the end of her 20-year career with the Department of Health comes days after Noem faced questions from a conservative website, The Daily Signal, for the state granting a contract to The Transformation Project, an organization that advocates for transgender people in the conservative state.

The grant was part of an effort from the state Department of Health to administer funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for community health workers to link communities to health and social services. The program describes the health workers as a “trusted member” or someone who has a close understanding of a community.


Transgender-rights advocates, including The Transformation Project, have long said that transgender youth face discrimination and hostility, leading to depression, isolation and suicidal thoughts. The Republican-controlled Legislature has taken up efforts to discriminate against transgender youth.

The Department of Health awarded an annual contract to The Transformation Project starting in June. But Noem’s spokesman, Ian Fury, has said the governor was not aware of the $136,000 contract, did not authorize it and does not support the organization’s work. The state dissolved the contract and reviewed other Department of Health contracts soon after the issue of the contract was raised.

Fury said the organization had not complied with the contract terms, including submitting quarterly reports.

The Transformation Project did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the grant being canceled.

Democratic state lawmaker, Rep. Linda Duba, called Noem’s actions a disturbing example of her willingness to withdraw funding for health care based on her own political convictions.


“Just because you don’t agree with someone’s choice doesn’t mean you withhold or take away health care,” Duba said. “They have a high suicide rate and yet, this is what happened.”

Conservatives in the Legislature, though, have taken aim at the transgender community and sometimes pushed for Noem, who is widely seen as a potential 2024 White House contender, to take action on the issue. The Legislature’s Freedom Caucus, a right-wing group of Republican lawmakers, said Monday it would introduce legislation next year to ban gender-affirming procedures for transgender youth.

“This is a life-altering decision that shouldn’t be made by or for a child at such a vulnerable age,” said Republican Rep. Aaron Aylward, who chairs the caucus.

The U.S. Department of Justice has challenged bans in other states, slamming them as violations of federal law.


The Republican lawmakers also took issue with an annual conference in Sioux Falls that reviews the health care needs of transgender patients. It is being hosted by The Transformation Project and Sanford Health, the state’s largest hospital system.

Meanwhile, Noem in a statement said she was “grateful” for the advice of Adam, her health secretary, and praised her for putting “families first.”

Adam said in the statement: “My time with the Department of Health has been very rewarding. The dedication of the Department’s employees is impressive and will continue to serve the state well.”