There are some things that are more important than politics. Some things that, regardless of our chosen spot on the conservative–liberal spectrum, are not subject to debate and should not be thrown into the political hot-pot. Surely, we should all agree that every child deserves to be cared for, to grow up in a home that provides food, clothing and shelter, free from abuse and neglect. When a child is being deprived of these things and is suffering, we impose a duty on our local governmental authorities to step in and rescue that child; to protect the child and find her a place to live that will give her a chance for a better life. That is what our child welfare system is supposed to do.
In this country, there are hundreds of thousands of children in the child welfare system; every one of them deserves to be placed in a safe and caring home – whether temporarily until they can be safely reunified with family, or until they are permanently placed with a new family. For that to happen, we need state and local authorities, child placing agencies, and child welfare service providers to work together to develop laws, policies and programs that will find qualified foster and adoptive families. (Remember: states consistently report that the number one obstacle to placing children is the lack of willing and qualified parents.)
The only effective way to find more qualified parents is to identify and eliminate the barriers that prevent more people from stepping forward to foster and adopt the kids who need them. This week the Texas House passed a bill, HB 3859 – “an act relating to protection of the rights of conscience for child welfare service providers” – that does just the opposite.
In Texas, there are over 29,900 children in foster care, and thousands of others who receive various kinds of services. The state spends millions of taxpayer dollars each year in contracts with over 100 public and private agencies to provide child welfare services to those children. Some of those agencies are “faith-based”, meaning that they incorporate into their mission statement an express intention to provide child welfare services only in a way that is consistent with their religious beliefs. That means, in some cases, the agency turns away otherwise qualified prospective foster and adoptive families simply because that family does not pass the agency’s religious litmus test.
For example, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has active client service contracts totaling over $35 million (of taxpayer funds) with certain agencies called Covenant Kids, Inc. Covenant Kids proclaims itself to be “a Christian, faith-based agency” which “ask[s] our families to be able to sign our Statement of Faith and to be actively involved in a Christian church that is also aligned with the agency Statement of Faith.” It doesn’t take much imagination to see that many would-be foster or adoptive parents – LGBTQ, non-Christian, (or just not the right kind of Christian), single, divorced, etc. – will be turned away.
Lawmakers say this bill is necessary to “protect” these agencies from potential lawsuits that would force them to behave in a non-discriminatory fashion. In other words, the law prevents the government – who provide taxpayer funding – from examining their policies to determine if they are actually serving the best interests of children. The law also prevents the government from prohibiting the turning away of otherwise qualified families based on discriminatory criteria. And, the law gives them the right to sue the State or any state agency if they feel that they have been subjected to “adverse action,” such as denial of a contract, because they have refused or will refuse to provide services that conflict with the provider’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”.
Think about that for a minute. Even the bill itself talks about the rights of the providers, and not the rights of the children in care. The bill is designed – designed! – to allow agencies to turn qualified families away. It isn’t designed to identify and recruit such families and thus reduce the number of children in care. We don’t have enough parents. Nearly 1,200 youth aged out of the system in Texas this past year. That’s 1,200 young people who never found the permanency or forever family that so often protects against the myriad issues that follow such youth: homelessness, incarceration, drug abuse, unintended pregnancy, and more.
There are other very troubling aspects to HB 3859, that go beyond five similar license-to-discriminate foster care bills that have been enacted. For example, the bill protects child welfare service providers from adverse action even if they force children under their care to attend “a private or parochial school or otherwise provid[e] a religious education.” For those of us working on behalf of LGBTQ kids in foster care, this is a big red flag! The potential harm to kids – many of whom are teenagers – who do not conform or wish to conform to an agency’s particular set of beliefs is obvious. And, historically, we have seen right-wing extremists try to use religion to justify attempts to change, rather than support or affirm, a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to a recent Williams Institute study of the foster care system in Los Angeles, there are between 1.5 to 2 times as many LGBTQ youth living in foster care as LGBTQ youth estimated to be living outside of foster care, often the victims of family rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Imagine the extreme example – being an LGBTQ foster kid in Texas and being taught at church and at school that you are an abomination. Rather than finding a way to affirm and support these youth and teach them to navigate life, this bill allows them to be cruelly harmed. Clearly, not all religious-based child placing agencies intend to turn away qualified parents, or to permit an LGBTQ-identified youth to be subject to so-called “conversion therapy”. But, some will. And, this law would give the state’s imprimatur to such hateful discrimination and harm.
HB 3859 protects discrimination, not children. Consequently, many professional child welfare organizations have opposed this bill. Family Equality Council and many other LGBTQ organizations have also done so. Most Texas Democratic legislators also oppose it. But none of that seems to matter to the overwhelmingly Republican Texas lawmakers who are bound to pass this bill, and the Governor who will sign it. So, what is not supposed to be a political issue – the welfare of the state’s most vulnerable children – has become exactly that.
We will continue to fight to keep other states from going down this dark road. We have to, the kids are depending on us.