Catholic adoption agencies: A private-public adoption system that works

Catholic adoption agencies: A private-public adoption system that works
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How do you mother a child who is used to being thrown against a wall? How do you teach a boy that when his dad reaches for him, it’s not to hit him? How do you comfort a little girl who doesn’t know what a hug is?

These are the kinds of questions that confronted my husband and me when we began our adoption journey.  

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Like most couples, my husband and I yearned for children. Those hopes were dashed by the cruel reality of infertility. After years of trying and treatments, we turned to adoption. That path led us to our local adoption agency, St. Vincent Catholic Charities in Lansing, Mich. While we are not Catholic, the state contracts with private agencies to care for and place in safe and loving homes the roughly 13,000 children in the state foster care system.  

Our life plans took another surprise turn when staff at St. Vincent approached us about adopting three severely neglected siblings at once. Siblings are often separated when they enter foster care, but these siblings couldn’t withstand the separation, as they had learned to survive by clinging together, at times, quite literally. The oldest, just four at the time, was tasked with feeding and caring for his newborn sister. He had to perform this task quickly and efficiently because if she cried, he was beat.

There is no book, no pamphlet, no course in life that can prepare you for the reality that is going from marriage, to infertility, to saying yes to adopting three children at once who have suffered severe emotional and physical trauma. It is a journey you walk one extraordinarily unpredictable step at a time, and one we were only able to manage with the staff of St. Vincent walking every step of it by our side.  

Staff answered our late night worried phone calls, assuaged the biological parents when they became hostile, and accompanied us on countless doctor visits to treat our children’s numerous medical issues. The staff at St. Vincent didn’t just save the lives of my children; they accompanied us in the joy of giving them new ones.   

The work of St. Vincent is a daunting and seemingly unending task, with an ever-growing list of thousands of children displaced by neglect and abuse in the state rosters. Right now, there are 340 children in Michigan awaiting adoption, and St. Vincent alone placed 79 children in permanent, safe, and loving homes last year. St. Vincent also recruited more new families than seven of the eight other agencies in their service area. And more than 600 children in Michigan age out of foster care every year without ever having found a permanent family. These kids face higher odds of failing out of school and falling into the vicious cycle of poverty as adults.

But now St. Vincent faces an added challenge: a lawsuit from the ACLU against the Michigan Children’s Services Agency and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ultimately threatens to shut down its adoption program. Lawyers at the activist organization are suing the state of Michigan for contracting with St. Vincent because of its religious nature and acting according to its beliefs when placing children. Even though St. Vincent happily works with non-Catholic couples like me and my husband, the ACLU apparently would rather see their adoption program shut down than allow the state to work with a religious charity.

The ACLU argues that St. Vincent prevented its clients from adopting. This makes no sense. The ACLU’s clients actually lived closer to four other foster or adoption agencies without these religious standards. These agencies could have even helped them adopt kids in St. Vincent’s care. Instead of going to these agencies to adopt children, they've spent years targeting St. Vincent, as the lawsuit shows, apparently trying to drive them out of the business.

This lawsuit doesn’t just threaten St. Vincent; it undermines the prospects of each and every child in Michigan’s foster care system. It’s a petty lawsuit that prioritizes scoring cheap political points at the expense of children.

When staff later approached us about adopting a new biological sibling to our children that was born after their adoption, at first we were going to say no. Raising multiple children with a range of special needs was hard, and I was recovering from the devastating loss of a surprise pregnancy. I had named the baby we lost, Nathaniel. When we expressed hesitation about another adoption, staff didn’t pressure us. They only asked us to pray for the right home for this new baby. His name, a St. Vincent worker told me, was Nathaniel.

We adopted again.  

And our personal journey with St. Vincent’s may not be over yet, as our children now have another biological sibling who may need adoption. Our hearts are open. But the ability of St. Vincent to keep its doors open is now being threatened. That’s why we’re going to court with Becket’s help to fight against this lawsuit. We can’t let the ACLU take that hope for kids and families away.

Melissa Buck is a mother to five children, including a large sibling group, all of whom she adopted through St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Melissa, with the help of Becket, has moved to intervene in Dumont v. Lyon in the Eastern District Court of Michigan.