In 2017, there were nearly half a million children in foster care nationwide, each one waiting to hopefully one day be adopted by a loving parent or family. But those kids have lower chances of finding a forever home due to state laws that allow some adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents who identify as LGBTQ.
A new report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress (CAP), in collaboration with Voice for Adoption and the North American Council on Adoptable Children, shows how religious exemption laws — and a lack of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ prospective parents — relate to the growing number of U.S. children in foster care.
“We are in a child welfare crisis right now and cannot afford to be turning away any parents,” says Frank J. Bewkes, policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Bewkes is one of the lead authors of the report that culminates a year-long project.
“Kids are having to stay with social workers in hotels,” Bewkes tells INTO of the overwhelming amount of children in foster care. “Sometimes they have to sleep in their social worker’s office.”
Despite the crisis of children without families, LGBTQ couples and prospective parents face discrimination in multiple ways. In 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia — there are laws that specifically allow religiously-affiliated child placement agencies to refuse prospective LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents. But in the vast majority of U.S. states, the discrimination exists in subtler ways.
In 42 states, says the report, there are no laws that explicitly protect LGBTQ people from discrimination at foster and adoption agencies, leaving prospective parents at risk.
The report cites one gay couple who fostered a child in Illinois, believing they were on track for a permanent adoption. But, they told CAP researchers, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services removed the child and placed her with extended family after family members protested about her placement with a gay couple — despite two independent reviews that found allowing the child to remain with the foster family was in her best interest.
John Freml told the report’s authors he and his husband Ricky brought their foster child home when she was just two days old. In a video that accompanies the report, Freml shares his emotional account while standing in the toy-filled nursery room where his former foster daughter slept.
“It’s difficult for us to think about what happened to our family and to our foster daughter,” Freml said. “We hope that she’s OK, and we hope that maybe one day we will get to see her again at some point. It’s a wound that I don’t think will ever heal completely.”
Nearly half of gay and lesbian adoptive parents reported experiencing bias or discrimination from a child welfare worker or birth family member during the adoption process, according to a 2011 survey.
In other cases, it’s the children themselves who face discrimination. The CAP report tells the harrowing story of one man who says he came out to his Oklahoma foster family at age 12 and was subject to physical attacks and emotional abuse that drove him to attempt suicide. He recalled feeling like it was difficult to speak out because his foster mother worked at the foster agency.
Sometimes the lack of nondiscrimination protections is simply a deterrent that drives away prospective parents, even in cases when it may not be necessary.
“Just because an agency doesn’t have a nondiscrimination policy listed doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t welcoming,” says Bewkes, “but it does potentially mean an LGBTQ couple is going to avoid that particular agency and drive hundreds of miles away to a different one that is welcoming.”
The report’s researchers surveyed child placement agencies in Texas and Michigan, finding that the majority didn’t have any kind of nondiscrimination policy listed on their websites, much less one that made it clear LGBTQ prospective parents would be welcomed. In Texas, for example, only around 10 percent of the websites for foster and adoption agencies showed — either through a posted policy or a photo of an LGBTQ couple — that they do not discriminate against LGBTQ parents.
“People might be discouraged,” says Bewkes. “And we don’t want that because we really need every qualified parent that we can find during this current crisis.” CAP recommends that all agencies make their nondiscrimination policies as clear as possible in order to encourage more fostering and adoption.
It seems likely that even more states will add religious exemptions in 2019, making an already bad situation worse. Laws allowing religiously-affiliated child placement agencies to turn away LGBTQ prospective parents have practically doubled each year; in 2018 four states passed laws allowing the discrimination loophole, whereas only two such laws passed in the two-year span between 2014 and 2016.
Bewkes compares the child placement laws to the push for anti-trans “bathroom bills” and school policies that restrict access to restrooms and locker rooms. The two areas of legislation are twin branches of a new right-wing movement that has shifted its focus onto children in an effort to roll back LGBTQ equality after losing the marriage battle.
“I would 100 percent say that this backlash is a response to the  Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage,” says Bewkes, drawing the religious exemption laws targeting child placement agencies to a larger trend. “You can look at the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced each year since Obergefell, and the number has just jumped.”
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