An increasing number of states are risking harm to children in foster care by allowing discrimination against LGBT people and others who wish to foster or adopt them. On March 10, South Dakota enacted a law stating that no child-placement agency may be required to provide services that conflict with its “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction,” even if they are receiving public funds or tax benefits — a move widely seen as targeting LGBT prospective parents. Similar bills have advanced in Alabama and Georgia, and others are pending in Oklahoma and Texas. Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia already have such laws in place.
Unlike the outcry when Indiana and North Carolina passed anti-LGBT laws in 2015 and 2016, respectively, the response to the latest bills seems tepid at best. “There’s not the same level of mobilization,” said Emily Hecht-McGowan, chief policy officer of Family Equality Council.
Part of this may be because of a misconception about which course of action better serves children. Proponents of the child-placement bills say that forcing agencies to close rather than to comply with nondiscrimination laws causes harm by reducing the number of agencies available to serve children. They point to agencies affiliated with Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington, D.C., which closed rather than comply with state laws saying they must not discriminate against same-sex couples.
Hecht-McGowan asserts, however, that the closing of these agencies has made “no discernable impact” on children finding homes. First, these agencies did not make that many public placements to begin with. Catholic Charities’ own annual surveys showed that nationally, it finalized 2,000-2,500 adoptions per year between 2008-11 (when they stopped reporting this data), only about 4 percent of all adoptions.
Yes, it is troubling if even one child in need does not find a home. The providers that closed, however, transferred all their cases to other agencies. In fact, when Illinois cancelled its contract with Catholic Charities in 2012, the percentage of adoptions performed by public child-welfare agencies in the state went up 4 percent. The reasons are unclear, but the data argues against the idea that shuttering discriminatory agencies reduces placements.
The need for families is urgent. There are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the United States, with 103,000 of them awaiting adoption, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those, 26 percent wait more than two years and 6 percent wait more than five years before finding a permanent home. Between 23,000-24,000 foster children turn 18 without ever finding one.
Children who lack permanent homes have added risk of major difficulties in transitioning to a healthy adulthood, the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) reminds us in its recent Issue Brief, “License to Discriminate.” And on an economic level, the longer children are in care, the greater the costs to the child-welfare system.
Same-sex couples are four times more likely than married different-sex couples to be raising adopted children and six times more likely to be raising foster children, with an estimated 16,000 same-sex couples raising more than 22,000 adopted children in the U.S. as of 2013, per UCLA’s Williams Institute.
Moreover, youth in care don’t get a choice of agency or caseworker. Under the new legislation, agencies could cite religious beliefs to place LGBT children into homes where the parents might try to “pray away the gay” or force them to undergo conversion therapy.
The danger isn’t just for LGBT children, either. Human Rights Campaign noted on its blog March 16 that this legislation means that agencies could refuse to place foster children (of any identity) with LGBT relatives, even though placement with extended family is “often considered to be in the best interest of the child.”
What to do? Family Equality, HRC and the American Civil Liberties Union are testifying in state hearings, identifying local families who can testify and working to raise awareness. Individuals in any of the states with pending legislation should call (don’t just e-mail) their legislators, Hecht-McGowan says. If a bill passes, call the governor and ask for a veto.
MAP has created a guide for “Talking About Religious Exemptions and Adoption Discrimination,” which may be helpful to those advocating with either legislators or neighbors. Read it at lgbtmap.org.
If you are a former foster child, an adoptive child or a foster or adoptive parent, Hecht-McGowan advises, “Tell your story. When people learn an issue impacts someone they love, it changes minds.”
And everyone should help spread the word. “Laws like this help no one,” Hecht-McGowan affirms, but adds, “We need public outrage and momentum and energy” to stop them.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.