A Battle in Philadelphia over Who Gets to Help Foster Parents Serve Kids

Sharonell Fulton (Courtesy Becket Fund)
Meet some of the foster parents standing behind Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services in a legal battle with the city.

In need of some inspiration? Meet some of the people who have stepped up to the plate in Philadelphia to be foster parents. They are currently being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in legal proceedings against the City of Philadelphia, which has severed ties with Catholic Social Services as an accrediting agency for foster parents. Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, a legal adviser for the Catholic Association Foundation, recently interviewed plaintiffs for an amicus brief in support of Catholic Social Services. She talks about the people behind the case with

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Who is Sharonell Fulton and why should she be a household name?

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer: Sharonell Fulton exemplifies selflessness. For more than 26 years, she has been a trusted and certified foster mother for needy children in Philadelphia. Partnering with Catholic Social Services’ foster-care program, Fulton has welcomed 40 needy children into her home. These children, often abused or neglected, found a safe haven at the home of Sharonell Fulton, whom they lovingly call “Meme.” They found a place where they could thrive and grow.

Beyond all this, Fulton has joined CSS and two other CSS-certified foster mothers in suing the City of Philadelphia so she can take in more foster kids. You see, the city froze referrals of needy kids to CSS for foster placement because the agency — citing Catholic teaching on the family and human sexuality — refused to endorse same-sex couples as foster parents.

Lopez: And the same thing happened to the Quinns?

Picciotti-Bayer: Yes, Karen Quinn considers fostering children her response to God’s call to care for the most vulnerable. She has fostered well over 30 children in Philadelphia as a CSS-certified foster mother for over 30 years. Of these children, Karen and her husband have adopted five and are legal guardians to one other. Quinn’s Catholic faith has played a large role in her work fostering children. “When people ask me ‘Why do you do it?’ I respond that my faith teaches me to respond, ‘Why not?’” she says. “I can’t help the whole world, but I can help one baby at a time.” Like many CSS-certified foster parents, Karen Quinn is ready to receive more children, but she doesn’t want to do it without the support of Catholic Social Services. Karen and other foster parents and former foster children have joined the Catholic Association Foundation in an amicus brief in support of CSS filed earlier this month with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lopez: What is most troubling to you about the situation in Philadelphia?

Picciotti-Bayer: Children need loving and stable homes. In Philadelphia and across the country, abuse, addiction, and neglect have left many children living in houses of horror. The opioid crisis has only made this problem worse. Much worse. Foster care is a temporary refuge for these children while a permanent home with relatives or adoptive parents can be arranged. But children who have suffered at the hands of the very people who should have cared for them need more than a roof over their heads. They need personalized attention so they can cope with their trauma. They need to feel loved. Foster homes certified and supported by CSS go “above and beyond” to care for the children referred to them so these kids know they are loved.

Lopez: How many families did you talk to?

Picciotti-Bayer: With the help of CSS foster-care director Bob Montoro, I was able to interview two longtime CSS-certified foster mothers and four adults that CSS had placed into foster care when they were children. All six still live in Philadelphia.

Lopez: What impressed you most about the foster parents?

Picciotti-Bayer: The two foster mothers I interviewed spoke of their children like any mother speaks of her biological kids. Both mothers expressed that they were not running boarding houses for abused and neglected children. They saw their role as welcoming needy children into their homes as members of the family. While a handful of their foster children eventually became their adopted children, both women still feel a strong emotional connection to each child they fostered. Their hearts ache when a foster child leaves their home, but they know that a permanent home is always the goal of foster care.

Lopez: What surprised you during your interview process with foster parents and children?

Picciotti-Bayer: It seemed that I was the first person some of these former foster children ever spoke to about their being a CSS-supported foster child. As we spoke, they opened up and shared with me their profound gratitude for the families they became a part of and the key role CSS played in supporting their foster homes. They all credit a loving CSS foster home with the success they’ve had in their lives.

Lopez: Was there a foster child’s testimony that made a significant impression on you?

Picciotti-Bayer: All four former foster children I spoke with are impressive. They are respected professionals with a strong sense of the importance of family. I cried with them as they recounted the events or circumstances that led to their placement in foster care. And we laughed together as they shared stories of growing up. Even as adults, some still struggle with the emotional damage surrounding their placement in foster care, but all show incredible resilience. They are genuine in their gratitude to their foster parents and CSS. One woman, Adrienne Cox, chose to follow in her foster mother’s footsteps. Adrienne and her husband fostered and later adopted two children through CSS. She says, “I felt that I had to give what was given to me. . . . CSS gave me a family.”

Lopez: What does the City of Philadelphia hope to gain by meddling with this system?

Picciotti-Bayer: The city wants all placement agencies to accept and promote same-sex households as foster homes. They have secured compliance from 29 of the 30 foster-care placement agencies in the city, but CSS cannot comply and remain consistent with Catholic teaching. CSS suggested it would refer any same-sex couples interested in fostering children to one of these 29 agencies. City officials, however, refuse to exempt CSS from the new policy.

Lopez: Why can’t Catholic Social Services simply agree to certify same-sex couples and be open to parents whose behaviors might challenge their religious beliefs?

Picciotti-Bayer: There is nothing unwelcoming about CSS’s commitment to maintain its over-100-year-old foster-care program. On the contrary, CSS wants to remain the welcoming agency it has always been and continue to meet the ever-growing needs of children. It simply wants to remain faithful to Catholic teaching on the family and human sexuality. Although no sex-same couple has ever approached CSS to become a foster parent, the agency has offered to refer any who might come to another placement agency. After all, foster-care agencies already refer couples to other agencies for all kinds of reasons.

What really is unwelcoming is the city’s refusal to accommodate faith-based organizations seeking to lend a helping hand consistent with their religious teachings. The city has effectively hung up a sign at the entrance of the Department of Human Services that reads, “Catholics need not apply.”

Lopez:  Don’t Catholics need to get with the times? Goodness knows Church institutions aren’t exactly impressing people with their credibility right about now.

Picciotti-Bayer: Although the times change, Catholic beliefs do not. Many foster-care and adoption programs run by Catholic organizations have closed their doors instead of violating their religious conscience. CSS has chosen to stand up in defense of children consistent with the Church’s longstanding teaching. There is an urgent need for experienced and trusted foster care, and CSS doesn’t want to go down quietly. Kids in need deserve an organization willing to fight for them.

Lopez: Why was it important for you to file this brief?

Picciotti-Bayer: Many Catholic foster-care or adoption programs have shut down rather than contradict Church teaching on the family and human sexuality. We filed this brief to support religious freedom in this country. Requiring Catholic and other faith-based social-service agencies to abandon their religious teaching as the price to serve others is at odds with our country’s rich religious pluralism and takes successful supports away from the most needy among us. We chose to share the experiences of CSS-supported foster parents and former foster children so that the judges considering this case understand what is at stake. CSS has made a real and significant impact in the lives of children whose biological parents denied them the love and support they deserved. The Catholic Church stepped up, providing these orphaned children with loving foster homes and has benefitted countless other Philadelphia children like them. It would be tragic if CSS couldn’t continue to help kids because they refuse to conform to popular ideas.



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