And foster care agencies themselves, the ones that don’t discriminate against LGBTQ foster parents, could be the targets of hyperpartisans emboldened by a perceived Supreme Court victory.
In a city like Philadelphia, the Supreme Court ruling likely won’t have much impact. There are countless other organizations, including reputable faith-based organizations, which will continue to certify LGBTQ+ families as foster parents. The question is, what happens in smaller communities — where the entire foster care system is dependent on one organization — if that organization chooses to discriminate? What could happen in rural America if the only organization serving the community chooses to discriminate as Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia has?
Rural America, where one-fifth of the U.S. population resides, has the nation’s highest rates of poverty and child poverty. It also has the highest rates of parenting among same-sex couples and LGBTQ+ individuals. In rural America, substance abuse is driving more children into foster care, but travel distances and lack of public transportation stand as great challenges to helping children.
Mitigating the risk and the possible damage from this decision will not be easy but taking a few urgent steps will help.
First, cities and municipalities must carefully review their contracts with child welfare agencies. The Supreme Court ruling was narrowly focused on the contractual language relating to one provider in Philadelphia.
In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.” The city of Philadelphia’s contract exempted agencies from the city’s anti-discrimination policies. So the city’s refusal to contract with the Catholic agency, Roberts wrote, “violates Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
Going forward, city officials must ensure that the exemptions and loopholes like those in the Philadelphia contract are eliminated. There can be no latitude when it comes to discrimination. If an organization discriminates, no exemptions can be provided.
Advocates, nonprofits and those who care cannot be complacent. We must work with our local public agencies to ensure that the contract language is airtight and policies are updated.
Second, organizations themselves must create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ families. This Supreme Court decision sends a loud and clear message to families who are LGBTQ+ that they can be legally discriminated against by organizations that are determined to do so. But, we can use this moment to redouble our efforts and welcome LGBTQ+ families into our midst, as foster and adoptive parents and onto our boards of trustees and directors. By doing so, we can turn this loss into a winning moment for our loneliest children.
It’s essential that we make these efforts, and here’s why: At the end of 2019, over 400,000 children had been separated from their biological families and placed in foster care. We will end 2021 with about the same number of children in foster care.
Despite our best efforts, the foster care system moves very slowly. Once separated from their family, most children will spend at least two years in the system. Our youngest children stay far too long, and each year over 23,000 of our oldest teens age out of the system alone and without a family.
In fact, about 125,000 children in the foster care system are awaiting adoption but less than five percent live with a family willing to adopt them. And we struggle the hardest to create love, belonging and family for those children who identify as LGBTQ+. The estimates for this LGBTQ+ community in foster care vary from a low of four percent to a high of 34 percent. Most are victims of homophobia, transphobia and rejection both inside and outside the foster care system.
In rural, conservative areas, with fewer foster care agency options, the ruling creates a multiplier effect of difficulties for both foster youth and potential foster families. LGBTQ+ families will likely be forced to travel for hours to find a foster care agency willing to work with them. That is a game-changer for foster care recruitment.
The research is clear: Children succeed when they are loved and when they have unconditional belonging. These are unfortunately experiences that governments and charity organizations can never provide. You need a family for that.
At my organization, The Children’s Village, many LGBTQ+ families step up to provide love and belonging to children who have been denied belonging, the fundamental building block for human success. These beautiful families aren’t on a mission to influence a child’s sexuality. They simply want to provide a safe home for children who have been systematically rejected and denied love.
LGBTQ+ families make an immeasurable impact. To deny these loving families the opportunity to provide children with a home, love and belonging would constitute a massive failure to meet our moral obligation. But it would also doom a generation of rural children to loneliness and poverty, necessitating continued government intervention, charity or both. In this light, the question is simple: Do these children not deserve a family? Do they not deserve to live in a home with people who love them? Yes, they do!
Historically, services for children, especially services that encourage adoption, have enjoyed bipartisan support. That’s changing in today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere. The Supreme Court ruling could embolden anti-LGBTQ groups, who could picket child welfare agencies, harass staff who serve LGBTQ+ families and pressure donors to stop their support. They could even seek to dominate a nonprofit’s board of directors in order to prescribe a discriminatory strategy. As of the events of January 6, 2021, these types of outcomes can no longer be written off as unlikely.
I grew up in a home that affirmed, respected and debated the great faith traditions. My Sri Lankan father was a Buddhist monk who converted to evangelical Christianity. I’ve studied and served among people of faith. I have seen and experienced love, hypocrisy and divisiveness created in the name of religion. I respect faith, and engage as best as I am able. Through it all I have learned one thing over and over again: the greatest of these is love — and love is love.