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Fostering freedom in Texas

Protecting faith-based adoption and foster care

Fostering freedom in Texas

Angie Galvan (Kim Leeson/Genesis)

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.’”

Handout

“We’ve learned a lot... 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.’” —Randy Daniels (Handout)

Being welcomed in, with Christian agencies referring gays and lesbians to other groups, is not sufficient for Kathy Miller, president of the pro-abortion and pro-LGBT Texas Freedom Network (TFN). At that March meeting, she argued passage of the bill would allow discrimination “in the name of religion” and would prevent gays and lesbians from fostering and adopting. When WORLD asked TFN and half a dozen gay-affirming Austin churches for examples of a gay or lesbian couple or individual who had been prevented from fostering or adopting as a result of agencies acting on their religious convictions, they could not give any.

The chair of the committee hearing, Rep. Byron Cook, scolded Miller: “If you care about the kids, you’re going to figure out how to work with everybody and not be against. It’s easy to come in here and be against. It’s a lot harder to give solutions. We have kids who are suffering while we’re trying to figure this out.”

PROPONENTS OF RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION laws argue they result in more foster and adoptive families—and reduce the number of lonely people like Galvan that the system fails each year. That’s because many families want to work with a like-minded agency.

Dallas mom Ashley Leffers and her husband Matt adopted their 4-year-old son, Alex, from the Gladney Center for Adoption in Fort Worth. They chose it because the agency is pro-life not only up to birth but in supporting the life of the birth mother afterward. Agencies without a religious background didn’t offer the same support, Leffers said: “As an adoptive parent, it is an emotional roller coaster, and I’ve never been so vulnerable.”

Kim Leeson/Genesis

Ashley, Alex, and Matt Leffers (Kim Leeson/Genesis)

Then, when her autoimmune disease did not allow her to carry the embryos she and her husband had frozen, Leffers wanted to know that a Bible-believing family would raise their offspring. Through Nightlight Christian Adoptions, the couple was even able to say they wanted a married, mother-and-father family to raise their child.

Leffers said it was important to her to have “constant contact” with a caseworker with whom she had a common faith background: “We know that the Bible is true and life-giving, so for our embryo adoption, we needed to know that we were working with an agency whose applicant pool reflected our Christian values.”

LATEST FIGURES from the federal Department of Health and Human Services show an uptick in the number of kids entering the foster system from 2013 through 2015. Of the more than 400,000 kids in foster care nationwide, more than 100,000 are adoptable because parental rights have been terminated.

Aside from the demonstrable benefits of having a permanent home, a child gains intangible benefits from knowing he has a family to depend on. Bill Blacquiere of Bethany Christian Services emphasizes the importance of feeling that “I belong, I came from a family. … Most of us graduate from high school and feel pretty independent, but you still have parents around supporting you, celebrating holidays, birthdays, and your achievements, and teaching you basic life skills like, ‘Hey, you need an alarm clock.’ These kids entering the adult world without families, they have none of that.”

Galvan never had that feeling of belonging. She remembers as a child spending hours a day drawing and painting. Now, she has tattoos that tell of her pain. On her back, a heart bears the names of her family of origin: her mom Deborah, her sister Josie, her brother Daniel. It also includes the name of the woman who fostered her during high school, Mary. On her hand and wrist are a phoenix in flight and a semicolon with the words, “My story isn’t over yet.”

Two other tattoos sit just below her neck and on her breastbone: “Exhale the past, inhale the future” and “Breathe.”

—The Zenger House fellowship program made this article possible

Why religious accommodation bills?

Texas’ new legislation protecting child welfare providers is a “status quo” bill that allows faith-based agencies to continue operating according to their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while providing a shield from lawsuits and adverse actions. At issue in Texas, in particular: an agency’s right to refuse to provide abortions or contraceptives for girls in its charge, or to train homosexuals or unmarried couples. Similar bills have already been enacted in Virginia, Michigan, the Dakotas, and Alabama. In some states, agencies that decline to serve prospective parents must direct them to agencies that will.

Proponents of religious accommodation laws regarding adoption and foster care say they are more likely to pass than state religious freedom restoration acts (RFRAs) and also give agencies more protection.

Attorney Troy Cumings, an adoptive father and Bethany Christian Services board member who has been instrumental in drafting legislation in several states, says: “RFRA laws apply broadly and can include private businesses and commerce. That makes them a target for people in opposition to these laws to unfairly poke holes in them by coming up with a parade of horribles of what the laws would hypothetically allow.”

Brantley Starr of the Texas Attorney General’s office says agencies using state or federal RFRA laws as a defense can be assured of a protracted legal battle—a fight most agencies say they cannot afford. Religious accommodation laws provide the legal clarity for faith-based agencies to operate and serve as a shield from financially ruinous lawsuits that opposition groups could bring.

Alternative solutions

In a broken system, church-based groups have spearheaded alternatives to state care. Here are some examples.

Safe Families for Children provides interim care to children of people who recognize they are in crisis—facing addiction issues, job loss, or inadequate housing, for example. The program, led by the Chicago-based Lydia Home Association, equips families within churches to take in children, with the goal of reuniting parents with their children without involving the state. Placements average six weeks but range from two days to as long as a year. Volunteers are screened and approved through background checks and home studies and serve without compensation.

Safe Families “case coaches” hear about families in crisis from a variety of referral sources—social workers, schools, medical providers, and churches—and then act as liaisons to connect families in crisis with host families. Since 2003, Safe Families hosts have cared for more than 22,000 children. Of that number, 93 percent of kids have been reunified with their families.

Zoie’s Place in Dallas is as colorful as the woman who runs it. Walls in shades of periwinkle blue, mauve, and teal display hand-painted signs that say, “Welcome,” “Joy,” and “You’re stronger than you think,” an encouragement to the one, two, or three former foster children who live there at any given time.

The home is the brainchild of Brandy Coty, a onetime Texas CPS caseworker, who for years witnessed the damaging effects of aging out of the foster system without a permanent placement. Coty left her CPS job and now focuses on providing a home, teaching life skills, and sharing God’s love to women who may otherwise feel they don’t belong.

Coty saw firsthand the problems in the system. She remembers in 2014 when caseworkers removed 89 children from their homes in rural Palo Pinto County, Texas, making them wards of the state. Meanwhile, the county only had three licensed foster families. When that happens, the state places children in group homes, with families several counties away, or—worse—consigns them to sleeping in hotels or government offices.

To move into Zoie’s Place, prospective residents, usually referred by Coty’s former CPS colleagues, complete an application and in-person interview. Coty outlines the rules of the program and emphasizes that residents are expected to participate in Bible studies and prayer. If all parties are on board, final steps include a background check and a waiting period for applicants to consider whether they can truly comply with the requirements of Zoie’s Place. Coty knows of one similar home in North Texas, as well as three programs that are larger and less “individualized.” They are all for females.

Coty says grace and mercy are crucial in good foster care, and “as Christians, grace and mercy lead our heart of service. If I start getting empty on patience or grace, I know where in the Bible to turn to get filled back up to deal with the difficulties that can come with working with challenging young people.”

“Fostels,” short-term foster home and hostel hybrids, may meet another urgent need. Scott Sanford, a North Texas Baptist pastor and Texas state representative, mentored a fourth-grade child until social workers abruptly placed him in foster care and moved him six counties away, in a separate home from his twin sister: “My wife and I were willing and able to help, to host [the child] and his sister in our home, in his own city and school district, but it wasn’t legal for us to help.”

Sanford favors creating fostels in which at-risk kids may be placed with willing families who have not gone through CPS’ rigid licensing program, but who are otherwise in a position to provide a temporary home—from a single night up to two weeks—to children while the state seeks a more permanent home with the least amount of disruption to the child.

He hopes fostel families, after dipping their toes in the child welfare waters, will be emboldened to go through long-term foster licensing, thereby addressing the problem of a dwindling pool of foster homes. Sanford envisions churches leading the fostel family charge. Hampered by CPS concerns over child safety and confusion over how the program would be financed, the bill failed to pass during the just-ended Texas legislative session. Sanford insists he will reintroduce it next session.

Katie Gaultney

Katie Gaultney

Katie Gaultney

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

Comments

  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 06/22/2017 12:20 am

    Good article...