Foster care bill may start conversation about protection of vulnerable children

Written by William C. Duncan

March 19, 2021

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, joined by Utah Sen. Mike Lee and 19 others, is sponsoring legislation – the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act to facilitate the continued involvement of religious social service agencies in foster and adoption care placements.

That involvement is critical to a system addressing an overwhelming need.

The text of the bill is not yet available, and given the partisan split of Congress, it may not get even get a vote, but the bill can begin crucial conversations about how to protect some of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

Foster care is a legal arrangement for providing care in a home setting for children at risk of harm because of parental abuse and neglect. Because our system wisely protects the fundamental right of parents to care for their children, parents should not have their rights terminated just because of a suspicion. While a state determines whether parental unfitness puts the child at permanent risk, foster care meets the child’s need for physical care and safety. When terminating parental rights is the only option, the child will be taken care of between removal and termination. In other cases, services to the family can end the risk of harm to children so they can return home to their parents, and foster homes can provide needed care until they do.

The most recent federal statistics show that there were more than 420,000 children in foster care in fall of 2019. At the same time, at least 15 states have seen a decline in the number of foster homes in recent years.

This is the challenge religious agencies work to alleviate. Journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley recently told the Sutherland Institute that “religious organizations are really the brightest spot in what is an otherwise dismal [foster care] system.” As Riley explained: “Rather than post a picture of a child on the nightly news, [religious groups] have engaged in a much more targeted message, going into religious congregations and telling people that there are kids in their ZIP code who need homes tonight.” In fact, “foster families working with religious agencies foster an average of 2.6 years longer than those who do not.” She notes: “Government is always going to play a large role in foster care. … But government has a limited number of levers it can push.”

In an op-ed in the Deseret News in November 2020, Sen. Mike Lee noted serious challenges to the foster care system. For instance, some states have failed to budget adequately for recruiting foster parents, and there is a perception that government agencies do not adequately support foster parents.

This is where religious organizations are critical. They assist with recruiting, provide support to families, and sometimes even provide placement services as a partner of the state. Research indicates that religious involvement tends to protect foster children from dangerous behaviors.

Part of the backdrop of Scott’s proposed legislation is a case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which involves a challenge by foster parents to the city of Philadelphia’s decision to stop working with Catholic Social Services in arranging for foster placements. These parents had partnered with the religious agency to provide foster care to many children in need, but could no longer do so because of the city’s decision.

The impetus for that decision was the agency’s policy of declining to work with same-sex couples in making placements because of the agency’s religious mission. The agency would thus refer same-sex couples to other agencies.

This is part of the conflict that Scott’s bill aims to alleviate. It “would protect child welfare providers from being discriminated against for acting in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs.” So, any government agency that receives federal adoption assistance would be prohibited from “discriminating against child welfare service providers based on the providers’ unwillingness to take action contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Although the upcoming Supreme Court decision on religious agencies and foster care will be important, it is heartening to see members of Congress weighing in to highlight the need for “all hands on deck” in helping children in foster care, including religious agencies.

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