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Supreme Court, put the needs of children in foster care first

Supreme Court, put the needs of children in foster care first
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On Nov. 4, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could jeopardize the wellbeing of more than 400,00 children in our foster care system. This case — Fulton v. City of Philadelphia — could upend decades of best practices in the field of child welfare and leave fewer foster families to care for children who need them.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia learned that two taxpayer-funded foster care agencies would not certify qualified same-sex couples to be foster parents. The city notified the agencies that this violated its non-discrimination requirement that applies to all government contractors. Rather than follow this requirement, one of the agencies, Catholic Social Services, sued the city, claiming a constitutional right to exclude prospective foster families based on religious criteria. The lower courts rejected this claim and the case is now before the Supreme Court.

As executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, I know that child welfare experts agree that allowing agencies to turn away qualified families because of their sexual orientation, faith or anything else unrelated to the ability to care for a child works directly against the best interests of children in foster care. It is a well-established child welfare practice that prospective foster and adoptive parents should be assessed based on one thing — their ability to provide a safe, loving home for a child.  

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Unfortunately, Catholic Social Services is not alone in excluding families based on religious requirements. There are also agencies that will not accept families that do not share the agency’s faith, including the largest government-funded foster care agency in South Carolina, which accepts only evangelical Protestant families and turns away Catholic and Jewish families and others. 

Should the Supreme Court agree with Catholic Social Services, state and local governments across the country could be forced to permit discrimination in their foster care systems, and qualified families would be turned away because of their sexual orientation, faith (or lack thereof) or countless other reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to provide a supportive home for a child. This would worsen the already severe shortage of foster parents. That’s why the nation’s leading child welfare organizations filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to reject the agency’s claims. 

Catholic Social Services claims that there is no harm in allowing agencies to turn away families based on religious objections because there are other agencies they can go to. We don’t know how many agencies would exclude same-sex couples, members of minority faiths or others if the Supreme Court says they have a constitutional right to do so. In any case, even where there are other available agencies — and that’s already not the case everywhere — discrimination deters people from opening their hearts and homes to a child. For some families, being subjected to the sting of discrimination or the challenge of navigating a system that permits discrimination against them keeps them from moving forward.  

I can tell you from personal experience how real this is. For many years, my organization has helped LGBT prospective parents find agencies that will serve them. Sadly, in some states this is difficult. Picture the children who didn’t get a family because families are so discouraged by the discrimination they face. 

Catholic Social Services also claims that requiring agencies to accept all qualified families will end faith-based agencies’ important contributions to the child welfare field and reduce services for children. This is simply untrue. There are many faith-based agencies that follow the highest child welfare standards and accept all qualified families, regardless of agency leaders’ religious beliefs. And when some agencies have chosen to end government-contracted work because they felt accepting certain families would conflict with their faith, other agencies — including faith-based agencies — stepped up to serve children. There is no shortage of agencies; there is a shortage of families. Allowing agencies to exclude families based on religious criteria only makes it worse.

The character of a nation is reflected in the way it treats its children. All children need families, and the last thing we should be doing is turning away or discouraging families who are ready, willing, and able to love and care for a child. We are a stronger and better society when our children have the support they need to thrive.

Mary Boo is executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.