"[T]here is no greater moral obligation ... than to provide for the protection of our children." (Arkansas Code § 9-28-104)
This promise to prioritize the needs of children above all is enshrined in Arkansas law. Yet Senate Bill 352 threatens to place the well-being of the 4,776 vulnerable children whom Arkansas has vowed to protect--those in foster care--below the right of child welfare agencies to discriminate based on their leaders' religious beliefs.
Imagine these heartbreaking scenarios that could become reality if SB352 becomes law:
An 11-year-old with significant medical issues fails to get the best possible family to meet her needs because a qualified, loving nurse seeking to adopt has been turned away by an agency because she is Jewish.
Three sisters in need of foster placements have to be separated because the agency caring for them turned away the only family willing to open their home to all three girls because the family does not attend church.
An 8-year-old, recently removed from his birth family, must move to a group home where he knows no one instead of moving in with his favorite aunts--because they are a same-sex couple.
SB352, which was introduced in the state Legislature this session, allows private child welfare agencies (including those that receive taxpayer funding to provide public foster care services) to refuse to accept prospective or current foster or adoptive parents based on their faith, sexual orientation or gender identity, marital status, or anything else the agency deems to be in conflict with its religious beliefs.
The organizations collaborating on this commentary--the North American Council on Adoptable Children, the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, and the National Association of Social Workers--have decades of experience in adoption and foster care. We have seen time and time again how discriminatory practices like those proposed by SB352 directly harm children who, through no fault of their own, are in state government custody.
Arkansas, like most states, faces a shortage of families to care for children who cannot safely remain with their birth parents. We sorely need willing, loving, qualified parents for these children--including people who are single and divorced, gay and straight, and with a variety of religious and non-religious beliefs. But approving SB352 would allow agencies to turn them away.
Vulnerable children across Arkansas would bear the brunt of this decision; they would be placed in group homes instead of families; sleep in child welfare offices; endure separation from siblings; or even "age out" of foster care without a permanent family, thereby facing high risks of unemployment, depression, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.
At its core, this is not an issue of religious freedom. It is about every child's right to have a safe, loving, permanent, and competent family--a right that the state Legislature has vowed to protect above all.
Taxpayer money should be used to fund child welfare agencies that fairly consider whether a family is able to meet a child's needs instead of rejecting prospective parents based on factors that have nothing to do with their ability to care for a child.
It is written right into Arkansas law: "[O]ur child welfare system needs to be strengthened by establishing a clear policy ... that the best interests of the children must be paramount." In short, the state has promised to place the needs of the state's most vulnerable children first.
Rejecting SB352 would uphold this promise, safeguarding a child's right to grow and thrive in a family.
Holly Barron is executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers; Mary Boo is executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children; Adam Pertman is president and CEO of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency; and Melvin H. Wilson is senior manager of the Office of Social Justice and Human Rights at the National Association of Social Workers.
Editorial on 03/11/2019
Print Headline: Moral obligation