In my mid-20s I worked as a child welfare case worker. The work changed me, variably and deeply and permanently. There have been moments when I regretted the changes, wished I could ever again feel light-hearted, simple, fun. Never mind. My time in child welfare helped make me exactly who I need to be and informs my interconnected views on community responsibilities, mental health, public policy and funding, and the social justice issues that weave through all.
I left that work stricken by what I will call here the "gap statistics," the margin between available foster and adoptive families and the number of children requiring them. There are about half of the welcoming families as needed. National data for 2017 showed over 440,000 children in foster care at any one time, including almost 70,000 children awaiting adoption after termination of their parents' rights (childrensrights.org), compared to approximately 200,000 licensed foster homes, with 30-60% of them exiting care annually (adoptioncouncil.org).
Yet several states "permit state-licensed child welfare agencies to refuse to place and provide services to children and families . . . if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs." Utah prohibits unmarried couples from fostering, and Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia permit state-licensed child welfare agencies to deny foster and adoption services to same-sex couples (Movement Advancement Project).
Even as a heterosexual woman raised as a conservative Christian, after protective case work I never again had patience for public discourse about whether LGBTQ adults should "be allowed" to foster or adopt. I saw no correlation between a person's sexual orientation and their social and emotional integrity. Regardless of the statistics, somehow we don't stereotype parents in traditional marriages as being prone to addiction, emotional or sexual abuse of children, neglect, endangerment, domestic violence, or, for that matter, casual cruelty or disregard for the dignity and worth of others. I knew that any healthy, loving, committed individual or couple able to successfully maneuver the strenuous background checks, training and licensing requirements should be encouraged to help with the crisis and build their family according to their convictions.
Nearly 15 years later, marriage, a graduate degree, motherhood, an amicable divorce, a dozen or so semesters of classroom teaching, remarriage, and life as a foster parent also now contribute to my views on child welfare, family life and civil liberties. These days, the same laws preventing our LGBTQ neighbors from helping close the gap statistics that once made me shake my bewildered head now make my blood run cold.
Personally, the faces and names of beloved families in my life are now attached to the concept of same-sex fostering and adoption. I cannot imagine some of the best among us from being prevented from any basic right, let alone from the immeasurable good and healing provided to vulnerable children in their homes. It is an unacceptable irony for our LGBTQ friends to be treated with discrimination and contempt instead of being cherished for creating intentional, authentic lives and relationships. Even public discussion of their exclusion from full participation in family life is deeply offensive to our humanity and personal freedom.
Laws claiming to protect religious liberties infringe on our freedoms today and lay the groundwork for more grievous abuses tomorrow. We are in danger of the same legal precedents being used to deny a Christian couple from adopting internationally. Or a couple of Christian or other faith backgrounds from adopting their own long-term foster children who came from a different faith community. Or interfaith couples from protecting their family's legal rights.
I hope that those not inclined to open their homes do not feel pressured by the gap statistics. However, I do demand that heterosexual people stop tolerating same-sex exclusion from any aspect of our communities, and that we all see it for what it is: Bigotry trying to demand legal sanction. As a society, when we discuss religious liberties, we must use the word "liberty" with all of the spiritual and intellectual honesty that it and we deserve.
Sarah Eccles lives in Rochester, has degrees in human services and education, and is currently a full-time parent and foster parent.