Faith-based child welfare agencies have mounted legal efforts to gain religious protections, as LGBT advocates cry discrimination. Meanwhile, thousands of children needing homes are left in the crosshairs. A new Texas bill—similar to laws passed in Virginia, Michigan, the Dakotas, and, just recently, Alabama—may ensure that faith-based agencies remain open to serve and recruit more foster and adoptive families. Will other states follow?
Conflicts concerning foster care and adoption are intense around the country. In the heat of battle, it’s easy to forget about Angie Galvan.
Galvan’s past includes sexual abuse, neglect, time in juvenile detention, crippling anxiety, and occasional homelessness, but she had it better off than many others who grew up in foster care: Galvan stayed in a long-term placement for all four years of high school. She’s now 25, single, childless, and making a modest income by taking maintenance requests on the night shift at a residential high-rise.
Still, after what she guesses may have been 22 placements, Galvan aged out of the Texas foster care system without a permanent home. In the seven years since her legal emancipation from state care, the depression and anxiety she experienced as a teenager have increased. She now faces adult challenges without having had an adult example to learn from or a consistent place to turn for comfort and care.
Galvan’s struggles aren’t unique. Texas, like virtually every other state in the country, faces a snowballing problem: Too many kids on foster rolls, too few licensed families to receive them. Social workers feel overburdened and underpaid, and in Texas up to half of all foster families drop out during their first year, largely for lack of training in dealing with vulnerable children.
That high turnover increases recruiting and training costs, and the biggest victims are children—already neglected, abused, and traumatized—who find little healing or relief in the state’s care. When overwhelmed foster parents bail, the state sends children to another home, and the cycle begins again. And those who age out of the foster system are far less likely than the general population to graduate high school. They go to jail more often, are homeless more often, and commit suicide more often.
You’d think that everyone could agree on this goal: Recruit, train, and equip as many foster parents as possible. But it’s not that easy, as a debate concerning a bill just passed by the Texas Legislature shows.
UNLIKE SOME STATES, Texas never barred gays and lesbians from adopting or fostering through state agencies, although it allowed private agencies to set their own rules. In the last two decades, as homosexuality became more accepted, most private agencies in the state began to recruit and train gays and lesbians to foster and adopt—but some faith-based agencies still choose not to serve homosexuals, and that angers LGBT activists.
Those agencies make up about 25 percent of the state’s pool of providers. The activists demand that the agencies serve gay would-be parents or suffer consequences, ranging from lawsuits to a loss of state licensing. If state officials agree and require the agencies to compromise their Biblical standards on sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of life, many of them—and many foster families that work with them—will leave the system.
That’s why Randy Daniels, vice president of Buckner Children and Family Services at Dallas-based Buckner International, one of the state’s largest Christian foster and adoption outlets, fought so hard for the new legislation. He testified multiple times as the bill made its way through the Texas Legislature. Daniels estimates Buckner spent $250,000 on its effort to advance religious liberty protections for agencies like his—money that could have gone toward hiring five caseworkers, each with a case load of 25 to 30 kids.
The spending was necessary because the American Civil Liberties Union, the Human Rights Campaign, and others lobbied to force Christian agencies to violate their convictions or close their doors. In California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia, those groups have been successful in pushing anti-Christian policies that forced successful agencies to shut down. Catholic Charities, one of the largest providers of child welfare services in the nation, shut down such programs in Massachusetts in 2006 and in Illinois in 2011 after losing efforts to place kids exclusively in married mother-and-father homes.
Although foster children are not removed from homes when an agency closes, the disruption takes its toll. Steve Roach, executive director of Catholic Charities of Springfield, Ill., said: “We lost 70 staff members, some of whom had been with us for more than 40 years, helping to put children in homes with both a mom and a dad. Having to shut down those [child welfare] services was an unnecessary, traumatic situation, and it was no way in the best interest of kids.”
Not long ago, gays and lesbians in most states had trouble becoming foster or adoptive parents. Amy Ford and Kim Rasmus, lesbians who have fostered dozens of children and adopted three, talk of how their initial attempt to become Texas foster parents in 2001 failed. “I called every agency I could find in the phone book,” Rasmus said. “I identified myself as [part of a] lesbian couple, and you wouldn’t believe the horrible things people said to me.” Ford said a call to Child Protective Services (CPS) finally got them in the system, although she and Rasmus got “the cold shoulder” from some in the training class, including an instructor.
Buckner’s Randy Daniels acknowledges the history: “No denying the Christian community has made some mistakes in decades past. … We’ve condemned gay people, … saying, ‘You’re wrong, your lifestyle is deplorable, and you’re going to hell,’ [without explaining] the gracious truth that Jesus came to save us from our sin.”
Now, homosexuals and their allies are politically potent in some states, and it’s payback time. Sometimes they’ve advocated cutting off public funding of any group that won’t place kids with gay or lesbian couples. Sometimes they’ve lobbied to refuse licensure for private agencies that don’t toe the line on anti-discrimination policies. In many states, both licensure and governmental funding are crucial for private adoption and foster care agencies to operate.
IT’S HARD TO KNOW exactly what effect the shutdown of Catholic Charities child placement had on children in Massachusetts and Illinois: The states undertook other reforms at the same time. Still, it’s clear that religious charities have played a huge role in American child welfare services.
Ursuline nuns in Mississippi opened the ﬁrst U.S. orphanage in 1729. Two hundred and fifty-one years later, the “One Church, One Child” campaign began in an African-American church in Illinois, where Rev. George Clements asked pastors to call upon congregations across the state to find at least one African-American family to adopt one African-American child each year. Following the program’s implementation, the number of African-American children waiting for adoption dropped by 80 percent.
When Focus on the Family implemented its “Wait No More” adoption initiative in November 2008, Colorado had 8,000 children in foster care, with 800 of them eligible for adoption. A year after the Colorado Springs–based organization began encouraging adoption from foster care at church-based events, the number of available children had been cut in half.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision that forced same-sex marriage on every state has increased pressure to limit the religious liberties of child welfare agencies. In response, legislators in 10 states have introduced bills designed to protect those groups. Backers of religious accommodation bills now typically say their goal is not to exclude same-sex couples but to allow Christian agencies to continue caring for children as they have done, in many cases, for more than a century.
Some Christian developers of achievable legislation have had to swallow hard.
James Frank, a member of the Texas House of Representatives from Wichita Falls, is an adoptive father and the author of the new bill providing protection for faith-based agencies. He is a pragmatist and recognized that homosexuals in recent years were fostering and adopting many hard-to-place children.
At a March legislative committee meeting in Austin, Brantley Starr of the Texas Attorney General’s office described the bill as a “license to participate” and a shield from future lawsuits. He said gays and lesbians are welcome at the foster and adoption table. The new Texas legislation requires agencies to refer prospective adoptive or foster parents to another provider if they are unable to serve them for religious reasons. Frank says, “People may not necessarily agree with that or like that, but there are LGBT couples doing fantastic work in foster homes.”
Christians are divided on that point, but Frank argues that without legislation protecting all agencies, some of those gay couples and their advocacy organizations are more likely to attempt to litigate out of existence the faith-based agencies.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Buckner’s Randy Daniels said. “Where Christians were the ones casting judgment before, it’s kind of flipped. [The LGBT lobby says] now, ‘If Christians won’t play by our rules—if we don’t accept same-sex relationships or abortions—then we’re out.’”