Every year, the foster care system in the U.S. is home to nearly half a million kids. A debate is now brewing in state legislatures and Congress about the best way to get these kids in permanent homes and who has the right to take care of them.
Kris Williams and Rebekah Wilson have been dating for four years. They live together in a modest white house on the west side of Oklahoma City with their two dogs and Ozzy, Kris’s son from a previous relationship.
“I have felt for a long time, even before I was out of the closet, that it was something that I’m called to, to be a parent to children who otherwise wouldn’t have a family and a home,” Wilson says. “I was excited to have Ozzy be a part of my life, but our family is not done.”
In May, Oklahoma passed a law Wilson worries may threaten the future she imagines. In many states, private organizations, including religious ones, contract with state child welfare services to provide foster and adoption placements.
The new law says that if a religious organization turns away a parent because of a conflict in belief, the religious agency cannot be sued for discrimination. Republican State Senator Greg Treat is the bill’s author.
“In my estimation, it’s an anti-discrimination bill,” says Oklahoma Republican State Senator Greg Treat, the bill’s author. “Just because you are a church, just because you’re Mormon, Christian, Islamic, whatever the faith group is, the state of Oklahoma should not be able to discriminate against you based on whatever deeply held religious beliefs you have.”
On average, Oklahoma’s foster system serves more than 15,000 kids a year. The state was sued in federal court because of the poor service it was providing. As part of that settlement, one of the things the state agreed to was to get kids out of public shelters and find more private foster homes.
The number of homes has increased since the settlement. However, Senator Treat says the progress falls short of the goals laid out in the improvement plan. He says this legislation could be part of the solution and would help make more groups comfortable recruiting foster families.
“We have some that are really skittish about being involved because they are worried about exposing themselves to potential lawsuits,” Treat says.
About 15 years ago, in Boston and the District of Columbia, as same sex marriage was starting to become legal in some states, Catholic Charities had to make a decision. Changing legislation would have required the groups to place children with same-sex couples. Rather than risking lawsuits, the church ended foster and adoption programs. That’s when the Heritage Foundation, a national conservative think tank, started promoting the legislation that Oklahoma and Kansas just passed.
Opponents, including LGBTQ rights groups, agree the law does not prevent them from legally fostering or adopting children.
However, Wilson says the state shouldn’t take her tax dollars and permit discrimination. “While I believe this is morally wrong, I believe beyond that it is legally in violation because they [religious foster agencies] are contracted by state agencies to provide that service.”
There are basic standards for becoming a foster parent. For example, in Oklahoma, a foster parent must meet the following requirements.
- Be at least 21 years old.
- Be in reasonably good health.
- Be single, married, divorced or widowed.
- Have or provide sufficient beds and space for personal items for additional children.
- Be able to manage your income to meet the financial needs of your family.
- Be capable of understanding, loving and accepting a child. Your role is to provide protection and nurturance to the child/children placed in your care and to act as a role model.
- If you have a spouse or partner, he or she is also required to participate in the home assessment process and to attend the 27-hour orientation session with you.
Many of these requirements are subjective, and contracted agencies are making judgment calls when they choose whether or not to work with a family.
The first of these laws came onto the books in Virginia in 2012, where it is known as the ‘conscience clause’. Since then, eight other states have passed similar bills including Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan, Mississippi and Alabama. Congress is also considering a resolution that would do the same thing at the federal level.
Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ rights group plans to file a lawsuit on November 1st, the day the law is set to take effect. Lawsuits are pending in Michigan and Texas, where the ACLU says the Constitution does not allow state-contracted taxpayer funded agencies to use religious litmus tests in screening prospective foster or adoptive parents.