Religion

The Supreme Court Might Help Us Save Children’s Lives

Sharonell Fulton (Courtesy Becket Fund)
In Fulton v. Philadelphia, SCOTUS takes up foster care.

Do you want to see kids live and have a chance at life? And really, let’s just focus on insisting the children-get-to-live part. Darcy Olsen’s motivation in life is the babies in America crying not for the normal reasons that babies cry but because they are born addicted to meth, because their mothers are addicted to meth, a devastating circumstance for both and incapacitating for the mother. Olsen wants states to protect those babies from meth-addicted parents instead of putting them in foster care only to return them to the same home with the same neglect and abuse or worse.

With a background in public policy, Olsen now sees foster-care advocacy as her life’s work — to save kids’ lives. A single foster and adoptive mother, surrounded by her supportive family and church, she has saved some children herself. She is a pretty traditional gal and had at first intended to see whether she could take in a teenage girl, knowing that teens can languish in the system. But a social worker told her about infants sleeping in offices, and she couldn’t un-see that image in her mind. She has since adopted four of those children, all under eight, but many children have lived with her when no one else would take care of them.

Now she’s the founder and president of Generation Justice, a group that helps some of our most vulnerable children. Some of their work includes getting changes in Arizona law to ensure that foster parents have stronger rights once they’ve demonstrated care for a child who is about to be severed from her parents.

Take a look at Generation Justice’s Facebook page and you’ll get a taste of some of the brutal deaths we see now in America. There will be a trial this spring over the death of Shaelynn Lehano-Stone, a young girl in Hawaii who died in 2016 of starvation. She had been placed in foster care — as had her brother — for abuse and neglect. And yet she wound up back in the hands of her blood relatives. You can hear the ache in Darcy Olsen’s heart when she talks about all the missed opportunities to protect children. So many children who have died were pulled out of their homes by child-welfare agencies — and then placed back in the very homes that had put them at risk in the first place.

In February, the Supreme Court decided to take up a foster-care case that is about religious liberty: Sharonell Fulton et al. v. City of Philadelphia. It’s a maddeningly ridiculous situation: In 2018, at the same time that the city of Philadelphia decided to stop working with Catholic Social Services, the city issued a plea for 300 more foster families because of a crisis there. So women such as Sharonell Fulton — the lead plaintiff in the case, who has fostered 40 children over 25 years — are being underutilized.

Another woman, Cecilia Paul, was a co-plaintiff in the case when she died in 2018. She had fostered 130 children over 40 years, adopting six. Before this controversy started, the city even honored her as an “Outstanding Foster Parent of the Year.” She said at the time that “caring for children in need” was her “life’s work.” I never had the honor to meet Paul, but I can’t help but think that she died of a broken heart, knowing that the city had created unnecessary obstacles to getting children into loving homes. It is sometimes said that government can’t love like a family can. Here, government won’t even let a family love if the family is associated with what government deems the wrong beliefs about things that were mainstream in America — including among iconic Democratic presidents — not so long ago.

Back in Phoenix, Darcy Olsen wants to work with people who aim to save lives. She wants to be creative and clear hurdles that keep kids out of stable homes. She wants them to find a family before they get literally lost by the foster-care system, sucked into America’s deadly sex-trafficking underground, or hurt by adults who are unable to care for themselves, never mind a child who has already been deeply traumatized. When you hang around Olsen long enough, you hear stories about teens who “age out” of foster care and choose to commit petty crimes because at least then, when they’re caught, they wind up with a roof and meals and some semblance of security. No one should have to make that choice.

My prayer for this case that the Supreme Court decided to address is not just that Catholic Social Services will be able to continue as an effective foster-care agency in Philadelphia, and not just that religious liberty in child-welfare work will be buttressed and protected. It’s that we all start to hear things that we can’t un-hear and do something to help these children who need our help.

When you hear about Fulton v. Philadelphia going before the Supreme Court later this year, help make this a moment in our culture that’s about more than religious liberty. We need religious liberty because it is a fundamental right that government exists to protect. And we can see why this is practically important in this Philadelphia case — because children need love, and they need good people and good agencies, and more options, not fewer. We can all make this case about awareness of the desperate needs in our nation and communities today. Whatever our politics, let our hearts ache for these kids as Darcy Olsen’s does, and as Sharonelle Fulton’s does, and as the hearts of so many others do.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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