Alex* was adopted from foster care at age two, and came out to her adoptive family when she was 14. After that point, Alex never felt safe at home. Immediately after coming out, her adoptive family began calling her names, making derogatory comments about her sexual orientation, and prohibiting her from participating in age-appropriate activities, such as spending time with friends or participating in extracurriculars. “It was heck for me,” Alex said. “I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, and I wasn’t allowed to do after-school activities, and [my adoptive mother] thought I was just lying to her to go meet up with a girl or something. Once I became 18, I actually got kicked out.”
There are currently almost half a million children in foster care in the United States, 123,000 of whom are waiting to be adopted. Child welfare data indicate that approximately 23 percent of children in foster care identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, like Alex.
In the state of South Carolina, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently waived federal nondiscrimination policy for foster care and adoption. While South Carolina is the only state that has been granted such a waiver to date, there are 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia — that use federal dollars to support private faith-based agencies, even when those agencies discriminate against foster and adoptive parents who do not share their stated religious values.
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Delaying, or even preventing, placement with permanent families — which agencies do by default when they restrict the pool of available families — can have life-long consequences for kids in foster care. Every year, about 20,000 youth age out of the foster care system without being adopted, leaving them with fewer educational and employment opportunities, and more likely to experience homelessness, become pregnant early, lack access to health care, and become involved in the criminal justice system.
There is also a more nuanced question as to whether agencies that discriminate against prospective parents are capable of supporting the diverse children — children of varying religious backgrounds, races, ethnicities, abilities, gender identities, and sexual orientations — that make up the foster care population.
Optimally, the foster and adoptive parents working with states should reflect the same diversity as the children they serve, and most importantly, every foster parent a state works with should be able to support, affirm, and meet the needs of any child in care. The demographics of children in foster care, and foster and adoptive parents, look different in every state. However, children of color and children who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionality involved in child welfare systems and experience disparities while there. There is also incredible diversity in the faith needs of children in foster care. Many young people express the desire to be connected to their faith community. This is a critical part of a young person’s identity, and the only faith and spirituality needs that should be taken into account are theirs.
Studies have found that attention to a child’s identity is core to promoting health and well-being — and that doing so has an impact on their success and stability as adults. For example, research has demonstrated that providing children of color with opportunities to cultivate a positive relationship with their ethnic and racial identity can serve as a protective factor, offsetting trauma, increasing self-esteem, and helping to mitigate the effects of racial discrimination. Research also shows that acknowledging and affirming youth’s sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression is critically important to a young person’s health and well-being, and promotes both safety and their success in foster and adoptive homes.
In reference to South Carolina’s new order, Erin Hall, a former provider and the previous CEO of the Palmetto Association for Children and Families, stated, “Finding foster and adoptive homes is about matching a child’s needs with a family. In South Carolina, we have put the preference of one faith-based agency ahead of the mission of child welfare. This is not reflective of what we know is in the best interest of kids or what most of the faith-based service providers in South Carolina believe is right.”
When child welfare agencies prioritize the needs of faith-based agencies over children, that restricts their ability to recruit and license loving and affirming foster and adoptive homes, there are significant negative consequences for children. Alex’s experience is one example.
In Alex’s case, by placing a young child in a home that was not affirming, she grew up without the support that foster and adoptive parents have committed to provide, and the state has committed to establish.
Child welfare experts, including many faith-based providers, know that these religious refusal laws hurt children. Unfortunately, the current political climate, and the too often unchecked power state governors and legislators have over the policies that govern child welfare systems, is likely to lead to more religious refusal in the future. Texas’ attorney general has now asked for a waiver to exempt religious groups in his state. In Pennsylvania, several lawmakers, without going through their governor, sent a request for such a waiver directly to HHS. These actions may respond to the desires of some providers, but is not aligned with the majority of faith-based child welfare providers and is firmly outside of the norms of child welfare best practice.
Lena Wilson, vice president of the children and families division at Samaritas, one of the largest faith-based providers in Michigan, described what she saw as the obligation of organizations like hers in the wake of the passage of a religious refusal law in her state: “We as agencies have to be vigilant to ensure all of our children and families are served without discrimination. Currently discriminatory legislation is being passed in the dead of night, which further marginalizes our LGBTQ youth and families and denies them equal access to services that they deserve.”
*Name was changed for privacy.