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Church and foster care: Needed, yet under fire
Rising rates of opioid addiction have put an end to a decade of progress in foster care. But even with tens of thousands of children needing new homes, some Catholic organizations may be forced to close their doors over their decision to place children in homes with only a married mother and father. Plaintiffs have brought forward lawsuits in Michigan and Texas, claiming that the refusal of Catholic Charities to place children with same-sex families is unlawful and makes them ineligible to partner with the government to provide foster care services. And in Philadelphia, a Catholic agency has been ordered to assess same-sex couples as foster parents or close its doors.
The stakes are high for the Catholic Church: These challenges to its freedom to serve families through foster care also threaten its mission to create a culture of life in the United States. At a foster care forum in May sponsored by the National Review Institute, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, the incoming chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee, told the gathering that foster care and adoption were “fundamental” pro-life issues and additional ways “God is calling couples to be open to life.”
“If we’re going to be true to our pro-life convictions, this has to become a burning issue,” he said.
The number of children nationally in foster care had decreased from 532,000 in 2002 to 397,000 in 2012.
Natalie Goodnow, a research fellow at Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, told Our Sunday Visitor that the opioid crisis has been driving up the number of children in foster care after a decade of progress.
By 2016, approximately 437,500 children were in foster care, and 92,000 children had been removed from their homes because of a parent abusing drugs.
Between 2012 and 2016, six U.S. states — Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, Indiana, Montana, and New Hampshire — saw the number of children in foster care rise by more than 50 percent. At the same time, Goodnow said there are more children in need than families available to receive them.
“There are not enough homes,” she said.
The individual and social cost is severe: Foster children who do not join stable families do significantly worse than their peers in nearly every measure of success and health, Goodnow explained. Children who age out of the foster care system, for example, are more likely to become teen parents, experience poverty and be arrested.
Amid the need for more foster parents, the movement to bar faith-based agencies from foster care and adoption services has been striking.
The federal lawsuits originating in Texas and Michigan both allege that since Catholic Charities receives taxpayer money for its foster and adoption services, its use of religious criteria — such as what marriage is — to determine suitable foster parents violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Philadelphia ended its contract with Catholic Social Services (CSS) last March, when it learned the agency would not place children with same-sex couples, contrary to its non-discrimination policy.
CSS sued the city, arguing that Philadelphia’s actions amounted to religious discrimination, since the Church agency would have to act contrary to its beliefs.
On July 13, a federal judge ruled against CSS, and ordered the organization to comply with the city’s rules.
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket and the attorney representing CSS, told OSV the city had given the Catholic agency a choice between abandoning its religious beliefs or ending its involvement with foster services.
“The message to people of faith is clear: Your services are not wanted unless you are willing to leave your religious beliefs at home,” Windham said.
Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, told OSV the suits belong to an “overall trend of growing religious hostility in the country.”
In addition to the suits filed in Texas and Michigan, Kao pointed to the lawsuit involving Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri, which was denied a state grant to improve a playground for its attached preschool and day care, because it was a church.
“This has nothing to do with the ability of Catholic Charities or any faith-based agency to care for kids. It’s all about their beliefs on marriage and the family which are rooted in their religion,” she said.
The urgency between fostering and pro-life work is very real for Sarah Zagorski, special projects director at Louisiana Right to Life.
Zagorski was actually delivered by an abortionist but did not start breathing on her own. Her birth mother demanded her child get the care she deserved.
Sixteen months later, Zagorski was removed from her home and put into foster care. She was placed with a Christian family deeply involved in the local pro-life community, and they later adopted her.
Zagorski said foster care was an “amazing, redemptive experience.” But she noted her experience was better than many others because of her parents.
Both foster care and pro-life activity uphold the value of children and work against the destruction of their lives, Zagorski explained, making pro-life families an excellent home for children.
“We’re committed to children, from the womb throughout childhood, and we see the value of them intrinsically,” she said. “We take very seriously the role of the foster parent.”
Some states have strengthened the legal protections for faith-based social services: Kansas and Oklahoma enacted laws this year to protect foster care agencies from being forced to act against their religious beliefs, joining seven other states with similar legislation.
A bill to accomplish the same objective for agencies and organizations that work with the federal government, the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, has taken an initial step toward passage in the U.S. House.
Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from California.