Equality Virginia believes that children in the child welfare system and prospective foster and adoptive parents have the right to be protected against discrimination. The only factor that should control adoption and foster care placements is the best interests of the child.
In April, the State Board of Social Services’ made a last minute decision to strip protections against discrimination based on gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, family status and sexual orientation from proposed new rules governing state-licensed adoption and foster care agencies. These protections had been included in the proposed rules after years of study by social services professionals and stakeholders, and were approved for publication by the former Attorney General and the current Governor. They were removed on the recommendation of the current Commissioner of Social Services and advice of the current Attorney General.
There is no question that the Board's decision to acquiesce in stripping the non-discrimination protections from the final rules will have a substantial adverse impact on the children served by the child welfare system. The nondiscrimination rules would have protected prospective parents (single individuals and married couples) from being disqualified automatically because of their age, sexual orientation, gender, disability or other factors listed in the proposed rules. Even more importantly, the proposed rules would have prohibited licensed child placing agencies from discriminating against the children that they are supposed to serve.
Removing the provision barring disparate treatment based on sexual orientation from the final rules means that state-licensed adoption and foster care agencies will continue to have the right to deny services to any and all of these LGBTQ children in our child welfare system, compounding the difficulties in finding loving, permanent homes for these vulnerable Virginians.
On the Virginia Performs website, Virginia acknowledges that it ranks first among the states in the percentage of youth (32%) who age out of foster care each year -- a first place finish to not to be celebrated. As the Family Equality Council reports on its blog, “research shows us that youth who age out of foster care without ever finding permanency are at a high risk for poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.”
In addition, the Virginia Performs website also acknowledges that Virginia had the lowest rate of public agency adoptions in the nation in 2009. In 2009 there were 6,700 kids in foster care in the state of Virginia. While 663 children from foster care were ultimately placed with adoptive families, by year’s end 1,612 kids available for adoption were still waiting for permanent families of their own. According to the Family Equality Council, more than 45% of the kids in VA’s foster care system have been in 3 or more placements – shuttled from home to home without finding the stability and permanency they desperately need.
What is the reason for this sorry record? On the Virginia Performs website, the Commonwealth says that “A supply of parents who are ready to adopt is a significant factor affecting adoption rates…”
The only way to increase the number of adoptions and to reduce the number of youth in Virginia’s foster care system is to remove all remaining barriers to finding qualified, loving, and stable parents who can provide permanent homes for these children. Discrimination against the children themselves or against their prospective parents is one of those barriers.
Equality Virginia recognizes that, even if published in final as proposed, the rules now under consideration would not fix what our members consider fundamental flaws in Virginia's current adoption law. As everyone now understands and the Board of Social Services has clearly said, the licensing rules do not and cannot authorize or require second parent adoptions or adoptions by unmarried couples (same sex or opposite sex). Those issues, complicated by passage of the Marshall/Newman amendment, remain to be addressed. Nonetheless, a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation against the children in the system and prospective parents legally able to adopt under current law, is a first positive step in the right direction.
Equality Virginia is a strong supporter of religious free exercise. We support the right of each faith tradition to worship without government interference including the right to determine for whom it will celebrate marriage as a religious rite. The business of running a state-licensed adoption or child care agency is not, however, a religious rite. No religious organization is "forced" to offer such services. Those faith-based organizations that choose to provide such services do so recognizing that there are rules they must follow to be licensed and to serve as an agent of the state in overseeing placement of foster children who are the state's legal children or facilitating what ultimately is the state action of terminating the parental rights of a child's biological parents and affirming the acceptance of parental rights and obligations by the child's new adoptive parents. Those organizations whose religious beliefs mean that they cannot perform this voluntarily assumed civic responsibility without discrimination can avoid any conflict by simply choosing not to take on this public role or become licensed to perform these services.
Ultimately, this is not an issue of religious rights or LGBTQ rights, but the rights of children in Virginia. Decisions whether to recommend the placement of individual children in individual homes should be made based on the best interests of the child as determined from an individualized evaluation of the needs of the child and the ability of a prospective parent(s) to meet them. These decisions should not be based on the political or religious views of any child placement agency, particularly when that agency is performing as an agent of the Commonwealth of Virginia.