In recent years, religious-liberty battles have consumed the energy of many faith-based organizations. They have had to fight, in courts and in state legislatures, to preserve their right to contribute to solutions to the child-welfare crisis without sacrificing their religious beliefs, which inform their view that the best placement for a child is with a married mother and father. They have been the object of recent litigation in Michigan and Texas and of administrative action in Philadelphia.
Of course, people of faith must push back and insist that faith-based child-welfare organizations are not discriminatory and that protecting them ensures that a diverse group of providers will be available to serve all children. The loss of providers is a loss for children and society, placing greater pressures on fewer providers to respond to a growing crisis. But we also have to recognize that the efforts of faith-based organizations to protect themselves are rear-guard, defensive actions against the encroachment of an aggressive agenda to drive religion out of the public square. Even where we win the battle, as we we did when laws protecting faith-based child-welfare organizations were passed in Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this year, our work does not stop there.
Often in church communities, and indeed within our society generally, we expect our institutions to be the place from which public initiatives, programs, and policies should issue. And there is wisdom and efficiency in that. The importance of mediating institutions for example, such as churches and various charitable ministries, cannot be overstated. And, to be sure, there is much to reform and improve in child-welfare law, policy, and organizations.
To name a few urgent priorities:
• We need to do more to support families in crisis so that they do not fall into the foster-care system through preventable neglect.
• We need to do more to accompany parents whose children are in the foster-care system — to get them the help and support they need to be able to parent successfully.
• We need more-effective laws that promote permanency planning, including adoption.
• We need to provide incentives and support for the fostering and adoption of hard-to-place children.
• We need to recognize that adopting a child is not a transaction, or the “happy end” to a child’s story, but the beginning of a lifelong human relationship, forged in love but in the wake of brokenness, and we must devote meaningful resources to post-adoption support.
• This is also an area in which “personnel is policy”: Child-welfare outcomes can be improved by placing a greater priority on excellence in service and management in child-welfare organizations.
Under expansive notions of hospitality and fruitfulness in marriage, we must ask how there can be in our country almost 120,000 foster children waiting to be adopted.
But even if the campaign for these reforms gets lost in the middle of other legislative priorities, or even if they get bartered away in budget negotiations, or even if, in the worst case, we lose the battle for religious freedom and the right of the institutional church to operate, there is still work to be done by people of faith in the child-welfare system — indeed, there is much work to be done. Inspired by their religious principles, people of faith know they have a personal duty to practice radical hospitality, to welcome the stranger and to protect the fatherless. Informed by their vows, every married couple knows that their own marriage is called to be abundantly fruitful.
Fulfillment of these duties finds expression in the choice of adoption and foster care. Under expansive notions of hospitality and fruitfulness in marriage, we must ask, then, how there can be in our country almost 120,000 foster children waiting to be adopted. We must ask how there can ever be one child sleeping on a social worker’s office couch rather than in a warm bed in the home of a loving family. In the light of faith, we must proclaim that we are all called to discern how (not whether) we can respond best to the cry of today’s orphan — the vulnerable child languishing in the foster-care system. Individual faith communities must educate their members about the urgency of the need, encourage families to respond to it, and support them in that ministry. But families themselves must do all they can to discern how they are called to provide a home — a mother and a father — for every child who lacks one.