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Friday, August 19, 2011  

In Which the Catholic Church Deserves a Break

While I'm a supporter of the Illinois civil unions law, I was disappointed to see today that it's been applied by the state so as to prevent renewing the foster care contracts with four Illinois Catholic social service agencies. Both the agency that holds our license (DCFS) and the agency associated with my denomination (Lutheran Social Services of Illinois) welcome same-sex couples to serve as foster parents, as they did before the civil unions law took effect. And while I'm no legal scholar, the judge's decision to uphold the state's action seems sound: there is no property right to a state contract. Rather, the state's original action strikes me as damaging to some important distinctions on which the whole notion of a semi-private foster care system rests.

Foster parents are not employees or clients of the state; we can be prohibited from serving for all kinds of reasons that are not prejudicial to our status as citizens. If Catholic Charities wished to exclude gay teens from their placements, for instance, that would be very problematic. If they wished to exclude divorced and remarried people, however, they should be able to do so. Private social service agencies, even with state contracts, are also not identical with the state. There is not much point in contracting out so much of this work if it is not to employ the religious and ethnic diversity of the population to recruit, train, and retain the necessary breadth of volunteers.

The danger, as I see it, is that this necessary diversity will be thinned out by an attempt to construe every divergence from state policy as a matter of discrimination. The Catholic Charities agencies that brought the suit had already offered to refer same-sex couples to other agencies so that no one who wished to serve would be prevented from doing so. The state's decision rather oddly inverts the priority of interests that is supposed to guide the foster care system. Children will be moved, albeit gradually, away from the caseworkers and agencies that have managed their cases until now, and perhaps from their foster families as well. And certain populations of current and prospective foster parents--who are still very much in demand--will be unavailable to kids coming into the system. It's not even obvious to me who will benefit. Same-sex couples won't have access to the agencies that excluded them because those agencies won't exist any more. They'll end up going to the agencies that would have welcomed them even if Catholic Charities were still in business.

Private groups, including Catholic ones, have driven innovation in child welfare from the start. The state was not, and never really has been, a fully adequate guarantor of children's well-being. Things like cultural appropriateness were easily, even eagerly overlooked in the early days of foster care, when it was seen as a way to take Jewish, Catholic, or racial minority children away from their bad homes and place them in good middle-class Protestant ones. That's not to say that any particular religious bias is at work here, but only that the right to dissent from the prevailing attitudes has enriched rather than impoverished the care of children in need of a substitute home.

This is something that should be obvious to modern liberals. We object, quite rightly, to state-level laws prohibiting adoption by same-sex couples. If the welfare of children is paramount, we argue, the particular sentiments of a state legislature should not keep them out of safe, caring households. Room for disagreement is something all of us need at some point.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:02 PM
I'm not sure I understand your point in the second-to-last paragraph. Or rather, I don't understand what your example of cultural and religious opportunism in the early days of foster care has to do with your point. Otherwise, I think you've convinced me.
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