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10/10/11  12:17 pm
Commenter: Jody M. Huckaby, Executive Director of PFLAG National

Every Child Deserves a Family
 
To the Virginia State Board of Social Services,
 
Thank you for re-opening the public comment forum for this important decision. On behalf of PFLAG National's (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Virginia Delegation, I acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling multiple viewpoints regarding the inclusion of a complete non-discrimination policy for Virginia’s child-placing agencies. Americans provide a unique challenge for policy makers due to our innumerable beliefs, desires, and actions. We hope that Virginia adds this non-discrimination policy to the list of laws which protect our citizens’ differences without delay, instead of hindering their right to equal treatment.
 
Every child deserves a family who wants and loves them, just as every Virginian capable of providing this love deserves to be considered. We respect the different moral beliefs of child-placement providers. However, the religious tenets of a particular agency are poor excuses for denying the children in their care equal opportunities to find welcoming homes. Can Virginia, in good conscience, allow a child to be passed over for placement because his or her agency does not agree with who they are or who their parents might be?  Virginia currently protects race, national/ethnic origin, and color. Age, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, disability, and family status must be protected as well.
 
The Issue
 
We are not dealing with a law which infringes on religious freedom of child-placement agencies. The institutions involved are aware of their ties to state licensing requirements and should note their obligation to comply with all state guidelines for child-placement. If they are unwilling to ensure bias-free environments for their children and all interested parents, they may choose to operate independently. The well-being and futures of Virginia’s children must be put first. Arguments which further a particular religion or ideology cannot dictate the state licensing law for all child-placement agencies.
 
Virginia needs to focus on the thousands of children who are being discriminated against within the foster care system and the parents who are unable to help them due to government-sanctioned limitations. Children have next to no control over who they are placed with, or if they are placed with a family at all. It is up to Virginia lawmakers to stand up and speak for the rights of these children. No child should face unequal treatment because of who they are. There is no rational justification for discriminating against our children and any possible parents because of who they are.
 
Foster Care and Adoption in Virginia
 
Virginia ranks first in America for the percentage of children who age out of foster care every year. In fact, 32 percent of our foster children leave the system in Virginia without a home. At the end of 2010, 5,326 children remained in Virginia’s foster care system, and 1,480 children were waiting to be adopted. Out of nearly 1,500 children, only 653 found permanent homes.
 
Virginia Performs, an initiative of the Council on Virginia’s Future, holds the state accountable for its future growth and long-term goals for improvement. Statistics provided by this organization show a tragic downward trend. In 2010 Virginia reported the second lowest public adoption rate in the United States: 35 out of every 100,000 children were adopted. Virginia is 50 percent below the national average of 71 per 100,000.
 
Studies have shown that children who age out of the system have higher risks of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood. The Network on Transitions to Adulthood: Policy Brief (2005), published by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions into Adulthood and Public Policy, found that former foster youth are more likely to rely on public assistance, less likely to be employed, and more likely to leave the system with a complete high school education.
 
Public opinion on the issue is clearly evolving. In an ongoing online poll started by USA Today asks: “Should same-sex couples be allowed to adopt?” Responses showed 72 percent of responders supported joint adoption rights for same-sex couples. Only 26 percent objected altogether. A noteworthy 60 percent of Catholics surveyed by the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute favored allowing lesbian and gay couples to adopt children, and 64 percent of Americans surveyed believe same-sex couples with children are legitimate families.
 
In a recent Virginian survey done by Quinnipiac University, 59 percent of registered voters surveyed disagreed with the elimination of the non-discrimination policy for government-run agencies. 45 percent said religious adoption agencies should not be allowed to discriminate as well. 51 percent of those surveyed believed same-sex parents should be able to adopt children.
 
Recent State Developments
 
Currently six states explicitly allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt children (CA, MD, MA, NV, NJ, NY) and most states allow all single-parent adoptions. All states but three (ND, NV, MI do not specify) allow a single same-sex parent to adopt.
 
Unfortunately we have seen several states choose to limit the opportunities of foster children and children who are eligible for adoption. Louisiana law prevents unmarried couples from adopting. Arizona law gives preference to married couples. Utah’s law prevents unmarried couples who live together from adopting. Not only do these restrictive laws limit the number of available homes for foster youth, but they also greatly diminish opportunities for single parents and same-sex couples to build their own families.
 
Florida and Arkansas had laws on the books that restricted prospective parents from adopting. Fortunately, these laws were met with great public protest and the state courts eventually overturned them.
 
Fiscal Considerations
 
The Williams Institute estimates that if a national ban on lesbian and gay adoption occurred, the cost to the foster care system would be greater than $130 million. Thankfully, a ban is not being discussed in this instance. However, allowing agencies to discriminate against possible parents could prove to be just as harmful. If discrimination is legally supported by Virginia law, agencies will place their own restrictions against parents who do not fit their personal criteria. Agency preferences against willing parents will yield fewer child placements which in turn will increase the financial burden on the state system.
 
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 46 states (and the District of Columbia) are seeing massive spending cuts which limit social services, including services which help foster youth. States cannot afford to limit the pool of potential parents who are willing to take care of foster children or children eligible for adoption. The number of married couples interested in foster care and adoption will, most likely, not reach Virginia’s child-placement needs unless there are significant increases in parental financial incentives.
 
On the other hand, the number of foster youth who age out of the system without finding a stable home will increase. It can be assumed that the financial costs to the state will indirectly increase due to higher poverty levels, elevated crime rates, and lower education statuses of former foster youth. In addition, former foster children without permanent homes tend to contribute less to the economic wellbeing of the state and place more strain on public assistance programs.
 
Prospective Parents
 
Virginia is neglecting a huge population of prospective parents because of discriminatory practices and agency biases against LGBT citizens. Nationally, the U.S. Census (2000), the National Survey for Family Growth (2002), and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (2004) reported an estimate of 2,000,000 lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans who would be interested in adopting children. 65,500 adopted children are living with lesbian or gay parents; lesbian and gay parents are raising 4 percent of all adopted children in our country.
 
There are approximately 14,100 foster children living with same-sex parents in the U.S.—these parents are raising approximately 3 percent of all foster children in America. If lesbians and gays were to be completely and explicitly banned from foster parenting, an estimated 9,000 to 14,000 foster children would be displaced. States would need to spend between $100,000 and $27 million dollars as a result. (Census, 2000; NSFG, 2002; AFCARS, 2004)
 
On average, same-sex couples are older, more educated, and have more economic resources than most foster and adoptive parents (Census, 2000; Williams Institute, 2007): These traits exemplify the main criteria of most states’ preferred foster and adoptive parents. Unfortunately for our states, due to immense legal restrictions and discrimination, same-sex couples tend to adopt foreign born children.
 
However, the nondiscrimination protections at hand are not solely focused on same-sex couples or single same-sex parents. Allowing licensed agencies to discriminate against parents could hinder a wide variety of people from applying. Senior citizens, parents with a different race than the child involved, different gendered parents than the child involved, single parents, parents with disabilities who still qualify for caregiving, parents with political affiliations which differ than those of the organization, and parents with a different religion than the child-placement agency will all be subject to discrimination.
 
Single/Unmarried Parents
 
According to the Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support, 13.7 million single parents—who could be discriminated against under current laws based on their marital status—raised approximately 21.8 million children in 2007. In Virginia between 2009 and 2010, 19.9 percent of adoptive parents were single.
 
Most statistics which show decreased opportunities and wellness within single-parent homes come from the economic level in the household or lack of income, stress from divorce, lack of benefits such as health insurance and tax advantages due to low-benefit jobs, and high-conflict within the immediate family (Center for Law and Social Policy, 2003).
 
The regulations dictated by professional, licensed foster care and adoption agencies should select possible parents who do not exhibit these traits. Single parents who are seeking to adopt or foster children are not intrinsically high risk options. Health, employment, character, ability, motivation, and experience with children are all primary considerations used for placement. Therefore, the discrimination against marital status is not justified based upon the assumption that foster agencies are equipped to select eligible parents.
 
Question of Parental Eligibility
 
Supporters of allowing discrimination in child-placement agencies voice concerns for the well-being of children within same-sex households. These concerns are driven by moral beliefs and are unsubstantiated by credible scientific evidence. The moral opinions of citizens should not limit the possibility of placing a child in a stable home environment.
 
Over 77 organizations across the nation support a child’s right to a loving and secure family regardless of what characteristics the hypothetical parents have. These organizations include the Child Welfare League of America, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association and the American Bar Association. These groups have invested 40 years of research, unequivocally demonstrating that the development of children depends upon stable attachments to nurturing parents, not on their parents’ marital status, or sexual orientation.
 
The American Psychological Association published a research summary in 2004 regarding “Sexual Orientation, Parents, and Children.” Much of the research involved the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) which tests behavioral and emotional levels in children ages 2-3 or 4-18. The conclusions of the study were adopted by the APA Council of Representatives and are currently supported by the APA. The summary states that “results of research suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.” Additionally, the APA states:
 
Research suggests that sexual identities develop in much the same ways among children of lesbian mothers as they do among children of heterosexual parents…fears about children of lesbian or gay parents being sexually abused by adults, ostracized by peers, or isolated in single-sex lesbian or gay communities have received no scientific support. Overall, results of research suggest that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents (APA, 2004).
 
The APA explicitly encourages the elimination of discrimination against sexual orientation regarding adoption, child custody, and foster care and believes that same-sex couples provide the same benefits to children as opposite-sex couples do.  
 
Foster Youth
 
Families Like Ours, a nonprofit agency which promotes rights for all families and children in foster and adoption systems regardless of age and characteristics, estimates that 18 percent of all foster youth are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning). For these children, safety and security within the child-placement system is imperative. The CWLA Best Practice Guidelines: Serving LGBT Youth in Out-of-Home Care, reports that a staggering 78 percent of LGBT youth placed in foster care are removed from placements or run away due to conflict over their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 70 percent are victims of violence within the foster care system itself. Tragically, more than 50 percent felt more comfortable on their own—homeless—than in foster care.
 
Discrimination against sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics endangers a child’s safety within the foster system as well as within foster homes. Virginia lawmakers should not allow licensed agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ children when deciding which children should be placed, with whom, or if they should be placed at all.
 
LGBTQ children are not the only minority group who is discriminated against inside the foster care system. The National Council on Disability’s Youth with Disabilities in the Foster Care System (2008) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of foster youth are in the special education system and have higher rates of aging out without permanent homes. Children with disabilities are frequently stigmatized due to a lack of understanding about their situations and characteristics. These children also report high levels of abuse within and outside of the system. If Virginia passes licensing rules which do not include non-discrimination for disabled youth, these children could continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented by the agencies involved in their care.
 
Disparities and Further Education
 
Though Virginia currently protects race, color, and ethnic/national origin, it is important to note that racial and ethnic minorities are still disproportionately represented in the United States foster care system. In 2005 the Foster Care Alumni of America reported upon this issue: Black children made up 32 percent of the foster care population, even though Black children only make up 15 percent of the total population. Eighteen percent of foster children were Hispanic, even though they only represent 17 percent of the total population. Studies have shown that Black foster children are more likely to age out of the system without being reunited with their families or finding permanent homes. Researchers theorize that biases against multi-racial family structures are leading to lower adoption rates for children of racial and ethnic minorities.
 
There are no statistics available which record secondary statistics of foster children in addition to their race such as age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and other characteristic identifiers. Because of this, we are unsure about any multi-layered effects of discrimination upon these young people. 
 
It is important that foster and adoption agencies understand these disparities. Education about non-discrimination laws (including the current non-discrimination principles which include race, color and ethnic/national origin) is usually needed for proper policy implementation. It is far too easy for child care staffers to overlook non-discrimination policies when endorsing children for placements if they do not understand the law. It is not enough to put protections on paper; it is necessary to teach and remind child care providers what their obligations to each child are as dictated by state law.
 
Non-discrimination policies help promote a more accepting and tolerant environment for foster children and potential caregivers. These policies will augment Virginia’s current progress on protecting race, color, and ethnic/national origin. We must remember—just because a Black child is protected from discrimination against her race doesn’t mean she won’t be discriminated against because of her gender or religion. Children are complex; their characteristics are not mutually exclusive. Child-placement providers must, at the very least, be legally responsible for treating all of their children equally.
 
Best Interest of the Child
 
Ultimately, foster youth and children eligible for adoption deserve a loving, caring, and stable family. As adults and policy makers it is our duty to pass laws which promote the greatest possible futures for these children. It is irresponsible to allow discrimination against the children within the system and it is unjustifiable to condone discrimination based in moral values against potential eligible parents.
 
The focus of Virginia must be on the children, not on the personal prejudices of the agencies involved. We ask that you see past the distractions put forth by biased agencies and look toward the thousands of children in need.
 
Thank you for your commitment to creating stronger families in Virginia and moving equality forward.
 
Respectfully,
 
Jody M. Huckaby
Executive Director
PFLAG National
CommentID: 20236