Over the past year and a half, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has brought faith leaders together to discuss the needs of young people in foster care. We have learned a lot from one another, but one lesson stands out: Much more unites than divides those of us in the faith, child welfare and philanthropic communities.
In the process, we also have learned more about what young people say they really need. Young people in foster care across the country have told us over and over how much spirituality and the freedom to live their lives authentically contribute to their ability to heal and thrive. In the words of one young person, who shared her thoughts at a Casey-hosted youth leadership conference:
“I know what it’s like to hang my identity on a hanger and set it aside for fear of being rejected and that is what has happened to LGBTQ+ families every day. So many amazing humans have been denied the opportunity to care for young people in the process. This is about healing.”
We in the faith, child welfare and philanthropic communities share a commitment to ensuring that children grow up in families, not institutions. We agree that young people and parents, supported by kin, neighbors, faith communities and government, are strong families — and that with ample opportunities to learn, grow and have a voice in their own lives, they can thrive. And we share a fundamental conviction that it is possible to enlist more than enough loving, well-supported families for every child in foster care — including parents, relatives and adoptive and foster families.
But one matter has long kept the faith community and child welfare systems from working together on behalf of children: whether and how to engage LGBTQ families as foster parents. At the Annie E. Casey Foundation, we believe that preparing young people to thrive as adults is a community-held responsibility — and that community includes all of us, including those who are LGBTQ.
Today more than 400,000 children in this country live in foster care. We all bear a responsibility to love and support these children through communities and families — before systems must intervene. And, when systems do step in, we must continue to embrace not only these young people and their parents but also extended family through a comprehensive continuum of community support. Young people deserve loving, supportive homes — with kin, foster, guardianship and adoptive parents who are celebrated for their commitment, not considered less than because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ethnicity.
The faith community has deep roots in foster care. A 2017 survey found that of those considering foster parenting, 22% said they are motivated by their religious faith. It should be no surprise that child welfare systems routinely recruit foster families from houses of worship.
What we also know is that a significant portion of young people in child welfare systems identify as LGBTQ — perhaps up to one-third of young people in foster care in California alone — and that many are Black and Hispanic. Our families and our systems must listen to the voices of these young people, hear their need for love and opportunity and provide them with much needed family support.
A recent story in The New Yorker reminds us that placing youth with LGBTQ foster parents is not new. It reports that in 1979, a judge ruled favorably on a gay minister’s wish to adopt, remarking simply, “The reverend is providing a good home, the boy loves his adoptive father and wants to be with him.”
But some faith-based child welfare providers have pushed back on the inclusion of LGBTQ families as foster and adoptive parents.
Consider a case before the U.S. Supreme Court: Fulton v City of Philadelphia, which centers on the conflict between the city’s nondiscrimination policy and the religious objection to accepting same-sex foster parents by Catholic Social Services, which provides services under contract to the city, including recruiting and supporting foster and adoptive parents.
Casey joined with the Raikes Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and the Redlich Horwitz Foundation to submit an amicus brief in support of the City of Philadelphia. In it, we argue:
“LGBTQ parents can provide safe and supportive homes for all types of children, not just LGBTQ or questioning youth. LGBTQ families are notably open to providing homes for children who are difficult to place, whether due to age, behavioral issues or LGBTQ identity, as well as sibling groups. And LGBTQ families are an excellent resource for other families fostering children who may be questioning or struggling with their sexual orientation. Thus, inclusion of LGBTQ families in the community of certified foster families has profound benefits that go well beyond simply expanding the foster family pool numerically.”
As we await the Supreme Court’s decision in Fulton, the Casey Foundation is encouraged by recent developments, including news that Bethany Christian Services — the country’s largest Protestant foster care and adoption agency — to begin working with LGBTQ families as potential foster and adoptive parents. “Bethany has remained committed to demonstrating the love and compassion of Jesus to vulnerable children and families,” says Chris Palusky, the organization’s president and chief executive. “The need is great, so we are taking an ‘all hands-on deck’ approach.”
We must acknowledge that we have all been complicit in policies and practices that limited opportunities and increased trauma for young people and families, especially Black and Hispanic families. This reality is an urgent reminder to question our approaches frequently, listen deeply and involve in building solutions those who are most affected by them. Our most tragic failures have involved treating some as less than others — as less worthy or less deserving — because of their race, ethnicity, gender or identity.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides this spring in Fulton, the faith, child welfare and philanthropic communities will have work to do together to meet the needs of children and engage LGBTQ foster parents. We must hold the doors open and welcome loving, supportive families for the thousands of children and older youth who deserve to grow, thrive and heal in caring homes where everyone is accepted for who they are.