As an adoptive father, I know how many families are eager to share their love and homes with children who need them. As a former family court judge and children’s lawyer, I know how desperately children want to find a sanctuary—with caregivers who, whether biological or not, love and support them unconditionally. The recent exemption given to South Carolina foster care providers allowing faith-based agencies to refuse to license potential foster parents based on their religion, sexual-orientation, or identity not only violates federal law but sets a dangerous precedent, promoting an equally dangerous lesson. At JCCA, one of the largest foster care agencies in New York where I am CEO, we constantly work to find new and creative ways to find foster and adoptive caregivers for our kids. A blanket refusal to any group would mean poorer outcomes for children who, through no fault of their own, cannot live at home.

Religious refusal “carve-outs” like this are based on the premise that faith-based organizations would shutter their doors rather than work with families whose values do not align with their own. The argument that discrimination actually opens up more homes to vulnerable children lacks any factual foundation; there is no evidence of a service gap in states where faith-based agencies have closed rather than comply with mandates to serve everyone in their community. In granting this waiver for South Carolina, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is not expanding potential homes or serving the needs of children in foster care. Instead, it is condoning—and funding—agencies advancing the belief that being gay is wrong.


In addition to being an adoptive parent myself, I also happen to be in a same-sex, mixed-faith marriage. My daughter has brought incomparable joy to my spouse and me, and we can’t imagine life without her. I know firsthand, both personally and professionally, how many lesbian and gay couples can and do provide loving, safe homes for children in need. Yet while there are approximately 2 million LGBTQ potential foster parents in the United States, fewer than 20 percent of adoption agencies are actively recruiting them and 60 percent report never having placed a child with an LGBTQ couple. A staggering 40 percent of agencies noted they wouldn’t even accept applications from LGBTQ couples.

It’s not just about the parents though.  All of us share the primary goal to support positive outcomes for children in foster care. Does discriminating against potential foster parents advance that goal?

It is estimated that between 19 percent and 23 percent of youth in the U.S. foster system identify as LGBTQ, a much larger figure than in the general youth population, making this group overrepresented in child welfare. Growing up LGBTQ is difficult enough, without the added stress of being in foster care. Young people need caregivers who understand and affirm their identities. They, more than potential parents, face the most damaging repercussions of this decision. According to a survey of LGBTQ youth in out-of-home care in New York City, 78 percent were removed or ran away from their foster placements as a result of hostility toward their sexual orientation or gender identity. Placing young people with adults who do not accept or embrace them threatens their safety, their well-being, and their future.

Young people who identify as LGBTQ enter the system for many of the same reasons as non-LGBTQ youth in care, but this group often has the added layer of trauma that comes with being rejected or mistreated because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Turning away qualified caregivers who can empathize with the stigma and trauma that can come with an LGBTQ identity handicaps our over-burdened system and disenfranchises the children it is meant to serve.

To be sure, religious beliefs may inform and guide an agency’s work. JCCA is a historically Jewish child and family welfare organization formed to serve immigrant children almost 200 years ago. Our Jewish values not only guide our work but compel us to serve all members of our community, of all faiths and identities, for both the benefit of parents and children.

The federal government should not grant child and family welfare agencies the freedom to allow religious beliefs to dictate parental fitness. In fact, we should be actively seeking out, assessing, recruiting and encouraging more foster parents who are ready and willing to accept and support LGBTQ youth. By denying certain potential foster parents in South Carolina the equal protection of our laws, the federal government is not protecting young people, but directly discriminating against them, eviscerating their identities and undermining their right to an affirming home.

Ron Richter is CEO of JCCA.