By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
For three years, I worked as a foster parent recruiter and trainer with one of the then-few secular foster care providers, Family Services of Western Pennsylvania (now part of Wesley Family Services.)
During one orientation session, I explained the placement process and reminded the applicants that we might ask them to take a child outside of their stated ‘preferences’ and to please keep an open mind because the job is to meet the needs of the children in care. A potential foster parent asked “What if you want me to take a teenager who is gay?” So I launched into the supports we could access for LGBTQ youth, the foster families, and the birth families as well.
She walked out, saying “I don’t want that in my house. I’ll go to a Christian agency.”
Another time, a would-be foster parent asked me about taking their foster child to church services. I explained that the child and their birth family had rights to determine religious practices and that if the child did not want to attend services, they could not be compelled. She asked me who would babysit the child because she wasn’t missing church to be a foster parent.
Let that sink in. You can’t miss church to care for a child.
Religious issues came up on a regular basis. We had Catholic foster parents who tried to have infants in their care baptized without permission or consent. But, we also had families who took turns attending services so they could meet the children’s needs and still engage in their own religious practices. One family, in fact, that did not observe Christmas decorated the foster child’s bedroom for the holidays with the help of the caseworker and CYF staff complete with a tree and lights. Another Catholic family began attending mass in a predominantly African-American church to ensure their foster children were culturally connected and not isolated.
Being religious does not mean someone is incapable of adapting to the needs of the children in their care. That’s the compromise that all spiritual and ethical practices should guide us – prioritizing the needs of these kids and balancing our own needs as well. That goes hand in hand with finding more qualified foster parents and adoptive parents for the children who need homes and families.
President Trump does not understand this issue. On November 1, his administration proposed a rule that would permit foster care and adoption agencies to deny services to LGBTQ families because of their organizational faith strictures.
The Department of Health and Human Services released the proposed rule, which would roll back a 2016 discrimination regulation instituted by the administration of President Obama that included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
Family Equality is collecting comments from the public to submit to HHS. You can submit your comment at this website: http://bit.ly/FosterCareComments. You must comment by November 30.
What’s important to understand is that this includes both LGBTQ families that want to foster and/or adopt children and LGBTQ youth in the foster care system. Tax dollars paid by LGBTQ citizens will be used to fund discrimination against us and our children.
While it is not necessary to place an LGBTQ youth in an LGBTQ home, it is important to have that option. It is also critical to find every single possible qualified home to care for the 400,000 children nationwide who are in the foster care system – there are never enough homes. Eliminating LGBTQ homes from contention is ultimately hurting children and youth, both LGBTQ and cisgender heterosexual children.
Trust me, I spent three years looking for new foster families while helping to sustain our existing homes. It is a difficult support to offer, one that radically redefines the entire family. Discouraging people from fostering or adopting because of their identity will hurt children, not protect anyone’s religious beliefs.
These rules could mean LGBTQ youth placed in the care of a faith-based agency can be denied access to LGBTQ supports that are essential to the welfare, even if their biological family supports that care for example, participating in an LGBTQ-centric after school or youth program to spend time with peers.
If a foster family believes that LGBTQ identity is sinful or false or anything along those lines, they should not have LGBTQ identified youth placed in their care — that includes gender non-conforming and gender creative children. The right to worship without interference from the government extends to children, too. It is the government’s responsibility to protect children in their care from being forced to participate in religious activities or have their identity manipulated or coerced by the religious beliefs of foster or adoptive parents.
We should be looking for ways to expand the pool of families willing to provide foster care or to adopt children and youth in need of those supports. A “pro-family” position acknowledges that families do not all look the same – single parents, a parent-grandparent family, siblings sharing co-parenting, married couples – it is patently untrue that a home with a traditional mom and dad is the ideal. I grew up in a family like that and would have certainly been better off being removed from their care and placed elsewhere.
Rolling back these protections is not about what is best for children and youth, nor is it about a genuine concern for religious liberty. It is part of the ongoing false equivalency of sexual orientation and gender identity with threats to religious freedom, used to drive a wedge between reasonable people of faith and the LGBTQ community.
I’ve conducted dozens of home studies and application reviews. If a home is unsuitable because of the family dynamics, we know. I’ve found potential foster parents with adult children ‘secretly’ living in garages or basements who tried to avoid background checks. I’ve had to sort through the legalities of an applicant being physically, but not legally separated from an abusive spouse. I’ve had foster parent applicants who refused to buy beds until they had children assigned to their house, assuming they would run out to the 24 hour bed store and get that set up in the time it took to transport the child to the home.
Yes, I worked with LGBTQ foster families. One family originally signed up to provide respite support to other foster families and ended up adopting their foster son when his original placement fell through. Another family parented a young gay male through his teens, doing everything possible to keep him from ending up in a group home. Another family fostered a young trans child who endured terrible abuse from his mother and grandfather, both pastors in a local church. That child’s siblings remain in the care of their biological family.
I’ve also had the privilege of being an aunt to two young boys, now 7 and 12, adopted by my good friends, a lesbian couple. Their Herculean efforts to get their children the education and medical care they deserve as well as building an enriching life has been an important part of my life.
I am speaking to this issue as an LGBTQ person, a former professional foster care worker, and as part of the chosen family with two adopted children. I will continue to preach that we need more qualified foster families, but it is imperative that the federal government recognize that children and youth flourish when their entire family is valued.