By Bryan Frederick
“I ultimately signed House Bill 24 (HB24) because it ensures hundreds of children can continue to find forever homes through religiously-affiliated adoption agencies. This bill is not about discrimination, but instead protects the ability of religious agencies to place vulnerable children in a permanent home.” (1) These were Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s (R) words after signing HB24, the Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act, on March 27, 2017. Under HB24, state officials are prohibited from withholding licenses from religious adoption groups who refuse to place children in households that conflict with their religious beliefs (2). In other words, Alabama’s religious social services agencies now have the state-sponsored green light to reject adoption and foster care applications on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Alabama is the latest state to put forth policies protecting religious-based discrimination in child welfare, though they are by no means the first. Michigan, Virginia, South Dakota, and North Dakota have similar policies protecting the faith-based child placement decision-making of such social service agencies (3). Nationwide, there are no policies that prevent LGBT couples from petitioning for adoption (both joint and second adoptions and foster parenting), and some states even prohibit systemic discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (4). While Alabama has been heralded for having one of the nation’s best child welfare models (because of their relatively higher investment in Child Protective Services, or CPS), HB24 will surely move them down in the rankings, and with good reason (5).
For one thing, the timing could not have been worse. President Donald Trump recently proposed a Federal Budget that would reduce funding to the US Department of Health and Human Services by $15.1 billion (17.9%) (6). While details on the cuts are scarce, past Republican proposals regularly target social welfare spending, including the Social Security Block Grant (SSBG) which represents 10% of the federal funding stream for child welfare services. Less federal money to the Alabama child welfare system means fewer programs supporting adoptive and foster families. To give you some perspective, in 2014, there were roughly 5,000 Alabama children in out-of-home care and 500 in in-home-care, with 1,020 of them awaiting adoption. Alabama spent more than $145 million on child welfare that year, and roughly 30% of Alabama’s child welfare agencies are affiliated with a religious institution (Child Trends, 2014). With less overall funding to support child welfare agencies and increased religious discrimination against otherwise qualified same-sex couples, the Alabama system will ultimately place far fewer children than it could.
But is that a problem? After all, if religious agencies are convinced (for whatever reason) that same-sex couples don’t make good parents, isn’t it a good thing that they can legally reject their applications? Not if you’re an Alabama taxpayer. HB24 applies to state-funded religious social service agencies, meaning grant funding from the state Department of Human Resources supports their child placement practices. This money also goes toward programming and reimbursement rates for families who adopt or foster through these agencies (DeVooght et al, 2013). Taken together, Alabama taxpayers are funding a system that leaves more kids without a family, provides fewer parents to care for them, and promotes fewer programs to support adoptive and foster families. Republicans talk a lot about long-term sustainability, reducing taxpayer burden, and minimizing deficit spending in budget proposals. Perhaps Gov. Kay Ivey forgot this when she signed HB24.
Here’s something else Ivey forgot (or maybe chose to forget?): the child welfare system is traumatizing for kids. Many of these youth are in the system because they were traumatized to begin with; 8,466 children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2015 out of 21,722 total CPS investigations (CWLA, 2017). Unfortunately, many youth also experience secondary trauma once placed with a family or in a group home. A 2015 class-action lawsuit against the South Carolina Department of Social Services exemplified this well, as 11 foster youth ranging in age from 2-17 years reported horrifying experiences of physical abuse, medical neglect, malnutrition, and sexual assault in their placements (7). Even I have a sample of such horror stories from my social work internship at the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, MI. In Alabama, one study estimated that the total cost of child maltreatment was more than $2.3 billion in 2013, which accounts not only for child welfare system costs but short- and long-term mental health care needs, lost worker productivity, and adult homelessness, among other factors (Boschung et al, 2015). Gov. Ivey: how do you plan to respond appropriately to these needs with HB24 in place in your state? Do you want even more taxpayer money to undo the problems your new policy will cause?
Child welfare is expensive enough without policies like HB24 getting in the way of child placement. Because HB24 allows for the restriction of potential adoptive and foster parents, its fundamental mission of continuing to promote “forever homes” for foster children appears to be lost in its details. If you’re an Alabamian who doesn’t care about protecting human and civil rights for LGBT people; who doesn’t mind that thousands of innocent children are being abused, neglected, and cast out of society without hope of adoption; who cannot find it within themselves to support and affirm the LGBT community out of religious objection; who doesn’t understand the shortcomings of our child welfare system modeling; or who voted for Gov. Kay Ivey and/or the politicians who supported HB24’s passing, perhaps the ineffective and politically regressive spending of your tax money will encourage you to oppose HB24. Lesbian couple and Birmingham residents Betsy and Leslie Allen summarize the issue perfectly (8): “adoption is hard for everyone, and creating new hoops to jump through only hurts the kids waiting for a loving home. That’s wrong.”
Boschung, M., Kendrick, A., Addy, S., Bell, G., Ijaz, A., & Riiman, V. (2015). The Cost of Child Maltreatment to the Alabama Economy in 2013.
Child Trends. (2014). Child Welfare Financing SFY 2014: Alabama.
Child Welfare League of America. (2017). Alabama’s Children 2017.
DeVooght, K., Trends, C., & Blazely, D. (2013). Family Foster Care Reimbursment Rates in The U.S. Child Trends.