Child Welfare Agencies to HHS: No #LicensetoDiscriminate – It Hurts Children

Child Welfare Agencies and Children’s Advocacy Organizations Respond in One Voice to HHS’ Request for Comments on Removing Barriers to Religious Organizations to Receive Public Funding”:  Allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the name of religion hurts all children seeking foster and adoptive homes, and re-traumatizes LGBTQ foster youth. 

Child welfare organizations have spoken clearly:  allowing discrimination in foster care and adoption services, even in the guise of supporting “religious liberty,” hurts all foster children seeking safe, supportive, and loving foster and adoptive families.  Such discrimination particularly harms foster children who are LGBTQ, racial or religious minorities, and pregnant and parenting youth.

Throughout 2017, the Trump Administration has worked to create a “license to discriminate” in the guise of “religious liberty”.  In October, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a broad memo on “religious liberty,” which, according to LGBT rights advocates “mixed well-established legal principles with extreme claims of a right to discriminate.”

Later in October, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requested comments from the public to help identify regulations that should be eliminated to “ensure faith-based organizations are affirmatively accommodated.”  Family Equality Council signed on to comments by the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination pointing out that freedom of religion is protected under current laws and regulations, and that allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in child welfare services under the guise of “religious liberty” harms children.  Of the 12,000 comments received, HHS initially only released about 80 to the public, many of them with an anti-LGBTQ slant.  Following protests, HHS has now released all the comments.  And the consensus among child welfare experts and researchers is:  a #licensetodiscriminate in foster care and adoption harms children.

In their comments, child welfare and children’s advocacy organizations pointed to the steady increases in the number of children in the foster care system, the number waiting to be adopted, and the number aging out of the system without ever finding a safe, loving forever home.  These numbers are highlighted in newly released HHS foster care data, and many child welfare agencies describe an increasing crisis in the foster care system due to the opioid crisis and increased substance abuse.

Child welfare organizations providing comments to HHS include the American Association of Pediatrics, the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC), the Child Welfare League of America, the Children’s Defense Fund, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Family Equality Council firmly hopes that the new nominee for HHS Secretary, Alex Azar, does not share the extreme views of his predecessor, David Price, including Price’s anti-LGBTQ views and support of discrimination against LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs.

We urge Azar to follow the advice of and the evidence provided by child welfare experts to HHS in their comments – and lead HHS to act in the best interests of the children in their charge.  We and our allies will be keeping a vigilant eye on HHS to ensure that children are protected

Key points raised by child welfare agencies and children’s advocates in their comments include:

An anonymous parent illustrated potential harms to children in his/her comments to HHS:

I am writing on behalf of our family, built by adoption, and the damaging experiences one of our kids went through previously while in state foster care in a group home run by a faith-based, Christian-identified agency. Although the child’s affiliation was recorded as “Not Christian” by the biological family, it was a rule of that agency that the children must attend whatever church the on-duty staff attended. The staff were involved with an evangelical christian church intolerant of personal differences, and the child was taken unwillingly to these services weekly, for several years, which frightened and demoralized to the point of the child stopping speaking for over a year… This agency also did not work with prospective families trying to adopt waiting children from foster care, unless they met certain criteria specific to the agency’s religious agenda. We must protect our children and support them appropriately, and I ask you to keep a safe line between religious beliefs and the provision of services. Thank you. 

What specifically did child welfare agencies and children’s advocates say in response to HHS’ RFC?

Discriminatory policies harm children:

“HHS must never prioritize the religious beliefs of child welfare agency leaders over the protection of children” (North American Council on Adoptable Children)

“We oppose policies that treat LGBTQ youth unequally and/or subject them to discredited and/or abusive therapeutic techniques.”  (Child Welfare League of America)

 “All youth deserve to be raised in an environment in which they are affirmed and supported in developing a healthy identity.” (Child Welfare League of America)

“Policies that single-out or discriminate against LGBTQ youth are harmful to social-emotional health and may have lifelong consequences”(American Association of Pediatrics)

“Children and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LBGTQ) are disproportionately involved with child welfare and experience worse outcomes than their peers due to trauma they often experience while in state care.  If publicly-funded service agencies are permitted to discriminate based on [sexual orientation and/or gender identity or expression] they may replicate the very harm and rejection that may have contributed to that child entering care in the first place.” (Center for Study of Social Policies)

“Supported by research and our decades of work with child welfare systems, we know that children and youth involved in the child welfare do best when: they are placed in the most-family like settings; their home placements are safe and affirming; they are connected to family and supportive social networks; they are provided with timely, appropriate medical and behavioral health care; and they are connected to supports when transitioning from care and after exiting care… Ensuring LGBTQ youth in care and those who are pregnant and parenting receive safe, high-quality, nurturing placements and access to supportive health care is part of the charge of child welfare and publically-funded organizations have a responsibility to provide those services.” (Center for the Study of Social Policies) 

States do not have the capacity to adequately serve children in the foster care system.  Allowing discrimination in child placements due to potential parents’ sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or religion further exacerbates this crisis:

“Allowing an organization to deny the application and licensure of certain individuals – like those who identify as LGBT, individuals not married, or people of certain religious faiths – would create additional strain on an already overtaxed system looking for foster and adoptive families with the best interest of the child the uppermost concern.”  (Children’s Defense Fund)

“At least half of the states have seen their foster care capacity decrease between 2012 and 2017, either from fewer available homes and more children entering the system, or because the increase in foster homes have been dwarfed by an even greater increase in children coming into care.  The…number of children in care will likely continue its upward trend, further highlighting the need for policies and programs that help expand the pool of available foster homes, not restrict or prohibit interested families or individuals from becoming foster parents.” (Children’s Defense Fund)

“We urge HHS to not make policy changes that would enable possible discrimination against children in the child welfare system or prospective foster or permanent families. Regardless of whether a specific HHS grant or contract is supporting child welfare services, HHS should not provide grants and contracts to entities involved in child welfare services that engage in discrimination against children or families based on sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or faith.”   (American Association of Pediatrics)

“As HHS considers potential changes to regulations and policy guidance to encourage the provision of grants and contracts to faith-based organizations, we urge you to ensure that federal policy does not discriminate against any groups of children or undermine children’s access to needed care and services.”  (Juvenile Law Center)

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