In November, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a new rule that rescinds broad non-discrimination protections for taxpayer-funded programs. In child welfare, the rule allows discrimination against children and birth families on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. For potential foster and adoptive parents, it allows discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. The rule is sure to have disastrous consequences for vulnerable children in care. It is a callous, shortsighted and cruel escalation of a culture war in which children’s safety, permanency and well-being are collateral damage. The Children’s Defense Fund strongly opposed the rule, along with 47 sitting senators.
One thing this rule highlights is the need for a serious conversation about the dramatic shortage of foster and adoptive parents in this country. While proponents of the rule claim that being able to discriminate against Jewish, gay, Catholic or transgender foster parents is crucial for their ability to overcome this shortage, there is no evidence that discrimination helps in recruitment.
There is, however, ample evidence about what does work to recruit and retain foster parents and to help them provide the support that children in care need. The Children’s Defense Fund is proud to be a partner of CHAMPS (short for “Children Need Amazing Parents”), a national campaign devoted to research-driven policy that promotes the highest quality foster parenting. It is based on the understanding that “loving, supportive families —whether birth, kin or foster—are critical to the healthy development of children.”
Viewing the new rule through the lens of the research-backed CHAMPS agenda, it is extremely clear how short-sighted it is. Foster and adoptive parents are crucial partners in the work of protecting children. They deserve and need affirmation and support for their work, not derision and discrimination.
CHAMPS Recommendation: Support Relationships Between Birth and Foster Families
Research shows that facilitating relationships between foster and birth families helps minimize the trauma of removal for kids and helps them adjust. Foster parents are encouraged, when possible, to include birth parents in decisions about a child’s life. This helps foster parents better understand the children in their care, preserves the relationship between those children and their families and helps to encourage permanency in the case of reunification.
This new rule undermines the ability of families to maintain such relationships. Parents who face discrimination over their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity will often be forced to travel long distances to find an agency that will not discriminate. This also makes it likely they will be matched with children far from their homes. If they are required to travel far distances for family visits and meetings it will add an extra burden to their already difficult job. This can make strong relationships with family less likely.
CHAMPS Recommendation: Provide Timely Access to Trusted Dedicated Staff and Peer Support
Our child welfare system has a serious problem with foster parent retention. Each year, between 30 and 50 percent of all foster parents quit fostering, often due to the feeling that they are not being supported. Greater levels of staff and peer support are associated with improved retention of foster parents and greater placement stability.
The new rule from HHS undermines the necessary trust between foster parents and the staff they encounter in the system. Even if they do not experience discrimination directly, the fact that others do and that the system allows it projects to foster parents of minority faiths, sexual orientations and gender identities that their position in the system is tenuous. They may be less likely to have an open and trusting relationship even with affirming staff, which will make placement disruption more likely and will make it more difficult to retain foster parents long-term.
CHAMPS Recommendation: Prioritize Placements with Family Members and Other Family Connections
Research supports the idea of a kin-first culture, endorsed by major legislation like the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. Placement with relatives is associated with better placement stability and better mental and behavioral health. Kids in kinship care are less likely to return to care after reunifying and more likely to be adopted quickly if reunification is not possible. They are more likely to be placed with siblings and they remain connected with their culture and identity and a sense of belonging. When possible, kinship care is usually the best option for kids.
The new HHS rule, though, ignores these findings. It allows placement agencies to deny relatives the opportunity to be kinship caregivers because their religion, sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t pass an ideological litmus test, even if placement with them would be in the child’s best interest. It will lead to sibling groups being broken up and kids seeing worse outcomes in traditional foster care, because agencies’ personal beliefs are prioritized over the needs of children.
In short, when placed in direct contrast to the research-based recommendations of the CHAMPS campaign, this rule proves even more deficient and short-sighted than it does on face value. The Children’s Defense Fund strongly opposes this rule and the discrimination it allows and urges HHS to reverse it immediately. Supporting and affirming the loving parents who provide homes for children in foster care is in the best interest of those kids. To fulfill our duty to children, it is imperative that we build policies that help foster and adoptive parents be the best they can be.