It’s always helpful to an important issue when the Heritage Foundation puts its resources behind it. And so it is currently with adoption. Their interest comes in no small part because of religious-liberty threats to religious adoption and foster-care agencies, but these threats can also be an opportunity to focus minds and hearts of every political persuasion on the devastating impact that narrowing the number of institutions working to give children a home would have.
The Daily Signal, housed at Heritage, recently highlighted the beautiful story of a birth mother and the son she gave birth to, the couple that has given him a home, and the Christian adoption agency that helped make it all happen. All were grateful that they could bring prayer and their values to the table at such intimate moments.
Emilie Kao is director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation. She talks a bit about Heritage’s interest in adoption and foster care.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why was recent news that Oklahoma and Kansas have passed laws protecting the conscience rights of adoption and foster-care providers important?
Emilie Kao: The people of those states kept the interests of kids first. As Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption says, “There is no right of adults to adopt, there’s only the right of a child to be in a safe, caring family.” Too much of the discussion right now is about the “rights” of adults to adopt, which leads to a misplaced focus on debating ideology. Only if more Americans put the interests of kids first can we get past the politicization of an urgent issue and maximize the number of child welfare agencies to serve the growing number of kids in need of capable, loving, stable families.
Lopez: Why did Heritage start talking about adoption lately?
Kao: There are more than 437,500 reasons why Heritage is talking about child welfare, because that’s the number of kids that were in foster care as of 2016. With the opioid crisis being the No. 1 driver of children into foster care, and with no end in sight to that trend, there is an urgent need for more families and more child-welfare agencies. States such as Florida, Indiana, and Montana have seen the number of children in foster care double because of parents’ drug addictions and overdoses. Allowing faith-based agencies to continue serving as they have for hundreds of years takes nothing away from anyone. Not only do faith communities lead the efforts to care for orphans in this country, they have the best track records at placing kids with special needs, older kids, and sibling groups. They are also able to train foster families much better than the state, which has an 80 percent dropout rate in the first two years of families fostering.
Each year approximately 20,000 children “age out” of the foster system, which means that states fail to reunite them with their families or place them in permanent homes. Their chances at success in life are not good. They are far less likely to finish high school or go to college. Around 60 percent of the boys and half the girls end up in jail at some stage. One third of homeless young adults were in foster care.
Lopez: What is the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, and why is it so important?
Kao: The Inclusion Act protects the liberty of faith-based agencies to serve children according to their deeply held religious beliefs, including by placing kids with families that agree to their statement of faith and with married moms and dads. This is what they have always done, but in the mid 2000s states were pressured by activists to shut them down. This led to the displacement of 3,000 kids in Illinois when Catholic Charities closed and to the displacement of other children in D.C., Massachusetts, and California. There are many options for LGBT people to adopt and no legal restrictions on their doing so in any state. Having a variety and diversity of agencies to serve different communities is the best way to maximize chances for kids to get off the waiting list for foster care and adoption. Shutting down any agency, much less some of the largest and most well-performing in the nation, hurts kids.
The Inclusion Act gives all agencies an equal chance to serve kids and families.
Lopez: What would you like to see Congress do?
Kao: We hope members of Congress will keep kids first by considering how substantial the impact of the opioid crisis is on our foster-care system. In 2016, there were 92,000 kids in foster care because of a parent’s drug abuse. Unfortunately, even though prescriptions are going down, overdoses are not. Among the 116 Americans who die each day from the drug crisis, there are going to be a number of children left behind who don’t have family or kin to take care of them, and those kids are going to need other families to be there for them.
Lopez: What would you like to see the White House and other government agencies do?
Kao: President Trump did a great thing by honoring Officer Ryan Holets and his wife Rebecca at the State of the Union, with their baby daughter Hope whom they adopted from a birth mom who was addicted to heroin. He said they embodied the “goodness of our nation,” and he could have been talking about the thousands and thousands of foster and adoptive parents in this country. They need all the support and help we can give them. After Philadelphia suspended the contracts of two faith-based agencies, Bethany and Catholic Charities, Sharonell Fulton, who is caring for two young kids with special needs, filed a lawsuit against the city because they are blocking her from receiving the resources she needs from those agencies to do the heroic work of caring for those children.
We hope the administration will continue to recognize the incredible work that faith-based agencies do and how much our country needs them to help the youngest victims of the drug crisis.
Lopez: How can we get beyond left vs. right clashes to help children? Do you see common ground on some of these issues?
Kao: Some people on the left realize that shutting down faith-based agencies does nothing to help LGBT people adopt and that it hurts kids by limiting the participation of faith communities in adoption. But they aren’t being heard as much as the louder voices who are politicizing the issue and making it about adults’ rights. I think we should have more conversations between people on both sides about facts and what’s really at stake.
Everyone should listen to kids like Shamber Flore who was born into a home of prostitution, drugs, and abuse and credits her faith-based adoption agency with saving her life. Whether you’re on the right or the left of the political spectrum shouldn’t be the main issue: We all need to focus on how to equip foster and adoptive families so they can provide kids with the best care.
Lopez: What are some of the providers that you’d send people to if they asked you about foster-care and adoption?
Kao: Bethany, Buckner, and Catholic Charities have all been recognized for their outstanding work. Fortunately, in our country we have a wide diversity of providers who work with all types of kids and families. Both National Council for Adoption and Christian Alliance for Orphans can direct people to agencies in their area that will meet their needs.
Lopez: How can Christians take the call to foster care and adoption more seriously?
Kao: All Americans can take steps to support adoption and foster care whether they do it themselves or support families in their communities who are fostering. Project 1.27, Wait No More, The Call in Arkansas, 1 Church, 1 Family, 1 Purpose, and Show Hope all do so much to support efforts to care for kids.
Lopez: Have you met people involved in foster-care and adoption who you would like to make household names?
Kao: Kelly Clemente, the birth mom who courageously choose life for her son and a family to raise him. People don’t understand what heroines birth moms are and that the choice of who raises their child is the last and most important one that they make for their child. I hope more people watch her story.
When she chose Bethany Christian services, it was a personal choice, not a political one, and as she says, every birth mom should have a choice of which agency and which family will care for her child. No one should take that away from her.
Also, I hope people will watch online today at noon to hear from Karen Strachan — who has been a foster parent of 40 kids and has adopted eleven — and her son Martin, who credits his Catholic adoption agency, St. Vincent’s, with allowing him to feel loved and safe for the first time after being born into an abusive home. His words were, “The work of St. Vincent’s is so important. It changes lives. It changed mine. Too much is at stake for children to take that away.”
This piece originally appeared in National Review