When Catholic Charities faces off against the City of Philadelphia in the U.S. Supreme Court Nov. 4, the parties will appear diametrically opposed. Philadelphia requires all contractors to adhere to a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation. Catholic Charities claims a Constitutional right to receive taxpayer dollars for its work licensing foster and adoptive parents even though it deems same-sex couples unsuitable to raise children.
The parties will agree, however, on a fundamental, but faulty, premise: the need for more foster parents. Numerous LGBT advocates concur in their friend of the court briefs, and they point to the relatively high percentage of same-sex couples raising foster and adoptive children.
But there would be no need for more foster parents of any sexual orientation if the state stopped removing so many children from their parents or reunified them more quickly, something that happens when parents have quality, interdisciplinary advocacy. Poverty is routinely confused with neglect, resulting in the traumatizing separation of parents and children. Housing problems — not parental shortcomings — delay reunification for 30% to 50% of children. Most of the children in foster homes do not belong there. Philadelphia’s practices are especially egregious; it has the highest rate of family separation of the largest American cities.
The misnamed child welfare system systematically destroys Black families. University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts extensively documented this almost 20 years ago, in her groundbreaking book “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.”
Despite two decades of tinkering around the edges of what goes by the term “racial disproportionality,” racism, particularly against Black and Native American parents, continues to pervade the contemporary practice of state removal of children from their families. Studies in Texas that controlled for poverty, for example, found that even though African American families tended to be assessed with lower risk scores than white families, they were more likely than white families to have substantiated cases and 77% more likely to have their children removed.
The Movement for Black Lives, in its Vision for Black Lives 2020, demands that the state provide parents with the same level of funding and support to care for their own children that it currently provides to foster parents. It also demands an end to the practice of irreversible termination of parental rights.
The Center for the Study of Social Policy, after more than 40 years of work on child welfare, has concluded that reforms will never produce racial justice. Its UpEnd Movement, co-sponsored with the University of Houston School of Social Work, calls for abolition of the current system and its replacement with anti-racist structures and practices that will keep children safe and protected in their homes, ending unnecessary family separation.
Roberts has recently written about why defunding the foster-industrial complex must be a part of calls to defund the police. None of this critique of the family regulation system — a name more apt than the child welfare system — will be on display in the Supreme Court this week.
LGBT advocates should care about the excessive removal of children as a matter of racial justice. It is also a distinctly LGBT issue. A 2016 study of predominantly low-income Black mothers found that those who identified as lesbian or bisexual were four times more likely than those who identified as heterosexual to have lost their children to the state. A mother with a same-sex partner will confront a unique set of additional obstacles, including the state’s failure to recognize her partner as a parent entitled to counsel and reunification services, and outright discrimination.
Whatever happens in the case before the Supreme Court, Catholic Charities of Philadelphia will retain the power to harm LGBT families. Philadelphia continues to contract with the organization to conduct case management in one area of the city, which means every lesbian mother whose child is removed there has to satisfy a Catholic Charities caseworker before her child is returned. An agency that so fiercely defends its right to keep same-sex couples from fostering and adopting cannot be trusted to fairly assess whether a lesbian or bisexual mother can raise her own child.
The problem is not limited to Pennsylvania. In Kansas, a lesbian mother whose court-ordered reunification services were overseen by a faith-based agency testified in a 2016 hearing that a caseworker told her she needed to be “fixed” so she did not pass her same-sex “preference” on to her children.
Arguing that we need more foster and adoptive parents is like arguing in favor of building more prisons. Mass incarceration and family separation are the new Jim Crow and Jane Crow, two sides of the same racist coin. Discriminating against same-sex parents, foster parents and adoptive parents is wrong because we are as good at parenting as our heterosexual sisters and brothers. That is a strong enough argument, one that doesn’t rely on accepting that the children currently in foster homes belong there.