Child welfare is theoretically about serving children’s best interests. This year, the Texas Legislature has passed several bills, which could have profound effects on the way private adoption agencies receiving state funds are allowed to practice.
One such bill is HB 3859, which would allow agencies to discriminate against qualified foster families (and foster youth) who are LGBTQ, single or who have religious preferences that go against the provider’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Texas is following other states in passing these restrictive laws.
Faith-based agencies have long chosen which groups to approve as foster families, and have long declined to work with certain people of other faiths or family composition. While theoretically the bill language is neutral on religion, in practice in Texas it refers almost exclusively to Christian agencies. If the foster homes approved by agencies are restricted to Christianity, then this poses a number of problems.
Older children in the system run a much higher risk of being deprived opportunities to practice their religion, which is often especially important to older youth who have been practicing their faith for years. Many children in foster care participate in court-ordered supervised visits with their parents, and then ultimately leave foster care and are reunited with their family. If, while in foster care, they are forced to practice a different religion, how will they explain this to their biological family during visits and after reunification? How might it complicate this already-stressful relationship?
By all means, a Christian child who comes into care should be able to have Christian foster parents, if at all possible. But what about Jewish, Muslim or even atheist children? If the family, and indeed the placing agency, determines that the child’s religion is unacceptable in their strongly held belief system, HB 3859 would protect the family and agency to make the decision to force the youth to observe the family’s faith only, free from legal ramifications.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services recently altered its Bill of Rights for youth in foster care, raising questions about the legal protections for foster children. While youth in care previously were promised non-discriminatory treatment regardless of “gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, medical problems or sexual orientation,” it now reflects only their right to be “treated fairly” and have their “religious needs met.” This is a disturbingly subjective standard and one that is easily manipulated with the passage of HB 3859.
In some cases, single-parent households are in the best interest of children. Many traumatized youth, like sexually abused children, may do better in a home with no dad, who may remind the child of their abuser. Still others would do well in a household with a single male parent, to establish a safe relationship with a male. What if that prospective parent doesn’t fit into the agency’s framework of a “model” parent due to his religious preferences, single status or sexual orientation?
For LGBTQ kids, many of whom may have been abandoned by their families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, the best home may be an LGBTQ home in which the parents are understanding and welcoming of their identity or, at a minimum, a home that does not practice a faith which condemns them.
Of course, not all Christian homes or churches condemn LGBTQ individuals, but the agencies who forbid LGBTQ foster parents clearly do. HB 3859 would allow agencies to refuse services to the children themselves, an act which is unquestionably not in a child’s best interest. The law would require the agency to refer the child or family elsewhere, but what if there is no similar agency nearby? In rural areas, especially, this would result in the placement of children far away from the place they call home. Or perhaps worse, it sets the stage for more children to end up sleeping in CPS offices for lack of available foster homes. This is a recipe for family strife in a situation where families involved with the child welfare system are already stressed enough.
Finally, this law poses a risk to the state. By allowing agencies to discriminate using state funds, the state risks being perceived as imposing religion, and forcing kids to convert to their religion. Similar laws have been attempted in other states and the courts have not ruled in their favor. Earlier this year the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled against banning same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. Last year, a federal judge struck down a ban on adoptions by same-sex couples in Mississippi. And a few weeks before, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed an Alabama Supreme Court decision that had refused to recognize a same-sex parent adoption from another state.
The rejection of qualified foster parents is likely to become litigated. The cost of legal battles could be better used to serve children in child welfare, especially as the number of kids coming into care is rapidly increasing. “Children without placements” surged for the fourth consecutive month, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
In the era where the opiate crisis is taxing the child welfare system across the country, it is counter-productive to reduce the number of appropriate foster homes for children based on adult’s biases. Child welfare should be about the best interests of kids based on research that requires flexibility in the child welfare system. This law and others like it do not follow best practices and are not oriented toward helping children in the state’s foster care system thrive. Those implementing child welfare policy should be able to adhere to the highest standards of child development. If they are still hindered by their strongly held beliefs, then they need to not be in the business of government-funded child welfare.
Katy Perkins, LMSW-AP, is a social worker and trainer in private practice in Dallas, Texas, and a member of the National Association of Social Workers. Michelle M. Hughes is an adoption attorney in Chicago and a fellow of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproductive Attorneys.