Religious groups called the ‘brightest spot’ in foster care system

Written by William C. Duncan

November 30, 2020

“Religious organizations are really the brightest spot in what is an otherwise dismal [foster care] system,” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Riley is a prolific author of important books and articles on religion, family and a range of issues. She has spent years researching and writing about the foster care system.

The involvement of religious organizations in foster care has come to national attention because of the U.S. Supreme Court case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, which involves a challenge by foster parents who worked with Catholic Social Services (CSS) to Philadelphia’s decision to stop working with the agency because CSS said it would refer same-sex couples seeking to foster to other agencies. 

As Riley notes, religious groups can powerfully impact foster care. For instance: “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.” 

The submissions and oral argument in the Fulton case highlighted the importance of religious organizations in providing foster care. To learn more about this, we asked Riley to answer some questions about foster care and the involvement of religious groups.

William Duncan, Sutherland religious liberty fellow: Can you tell us about some of your research on foster care? 

Naomi Schaefer Riley: I have spent the past three years researching and writing about child welfare in the United States. There are about 440,000 children in the foster care system, but something closer to 800,000 are involved in the system, with families receiving services because children were deemed at risk. The number of kids in foster care has been rising in recent years, a phenomenon that seems correlated with the drug crisis, a crisis that incidentally seems to be getting worse during the pandemic. 

There are a lot of problems with our child welfare system right now. On the front end I don’t think we know how to figure out which kids are at risk. We have young, unprepared people doing frontline investigations. Their training (which varies considerably from state to state) often does more to educate them about cultural sensitivity than it does to spot which kids are in danger. That role is something more akin to law enforcement but we very rarely recruit law enforcement folks to enter the world of child welfare. Aside from the personnel problems, there are also more fundamental information problems. We don’t know which kids are at risk because we are not making use of the data we have on them already. A recent pilot program in Allegheny County (around Pittsburgh) makes use of big data to help the operators at child abuse hotlines determine which kids need to be most urgently investigated.  

Family courts also operate at a snail’s pace, or rather, at an adult’s pace. There is no sense that an adjournment for 6 months in the life of a 3-year-old means something much different than it does in the life of an adult. And despite the fact that the federal government has placed clear limits on the amount of time kids can spend in foster care before their parents lose their rights, these laws are regularly ignored. The result of all this is that kids are left in homes because we don’t understand the danger to them or we understand it but we give parents years to clean up their acts. The children’s inability to form secure attachments with adults – either their biological families or foster and adoptive families – produces lifelong deleterious consequences.

Duncan: What did you learn about the role of religious organizations in foster care?

Riley: Religious organizations are really the brightest spot in what is an otherwise dismal system. In the past 15 years or so, large evangelical congregations in particular have produced a kind of revolution in foster care. They have altered the way that we recruit foster families to begin with. Rather than post a picture of a child on the nightly news, they 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. They have changed the training for foster parents too, making it convenient for people’s schedules, and also talking about foster care in the context of leading a Christian life. Obviously the government was never going to do the latter, but there was an amazing extent to which people who wanted to get trained to be foster parents never had their phone calls answered by state agencies or if they did, found it impossible to make it to the trainings. In the wake of the pandemic, religious organizations have been the most innovative in terms of offering online training and other accommodations for potential foster parents.

Finally these religious organizations recognized that foster care is hard and that it takes a toll on marriages and families. As many as half of foster parents quit within the first year. And so some faith-based institutions have recruited other individuals and families to act as official supports for foster families. These supporters also undergo some training. They can volunteer to do respite care if couples need a date night. They can put together furniture for foster kids who are moving in. They can deliver meals or volunteer to drive children to appointments. They can pray for foster families. Foster families working with religious agencies foster an average of 2.6 years longer than those who do not.  

Duncan: What are some ways religious groups contribute to the foster system that are different from what the government or other organizations do?

Riley: Government is always going to play a large role in foster care because they are responsible for removing kids from their homes and they are responsible for ensuring kids are in safe and loving foster homes. But government has a limited number of levers it can push. It can pay for advertisements to find foster families, but it cannot talk about why your faith compels you to foster. It can offer classes to train you, but like any bureaucracy it is not really operating with an eye toward making people’s lives easier. And it can tell you that finding a support network would be helpful, but it cannot bring a community around you.

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