The shameful foster-care war between DHS and Catholic Social Services | Ronnie Polaneczky

Exchange-Fostering Dozens
Hundreds of Philadelphia children wind up in institutional care, outside the city and even outside the state.

The city’s Department of Human Services and Catholic Social Services, one of the child-welfare agencies DHS works with, are locked into positions guaranteed to further harm already hurting kids. That’s not hyperbole, either. It’s the truth.

Philadelphia does not have enough foster homes for kids in dire need of a safe, stable place to live while the chaos of their lives gets sorted out. In March, DHS had to put out an urgent call for 300 more foster homes, its first major recruitment move in a decade.

Because of the shortage, hundreds of the children wind up in institutional care, outside the city and even outside the state. Fifty-five percent of those kids have done nothing wrong except to be born into families unable to care for them.

The brutal realities of institutionalization were shared in chilling detail last week during a marathon hearing in City Council, called by Council member Helen Gym, chair of Council’s Children and Youth Committee.

Young people and advocates from multiple child — and public — welfare agencies shared horrific stories about institutional physical, verbal, and sexual abuse, neglect, and cruelty that would bring most adults to their knees.

“We should have done more to protect you,” an emotional Gym said to the once-institutionalized children who told their stories.  Foster care can mitigate these dangers.

God knows that Philadelphia’s foster system is not perfect. Only two months ago, involuntary-manslaughter charges were brought against the foster parents of a special-needs child named Ethan Okula, who allegedly neglected him to death.

Nonetheless, studies show care in the community to be a massive improvement over institutionalization, especially when services are overseen by agencies that provide strong supports to foster families who’d otherwise be overwhelmed by the needs of children battered by poverty, trauma, or neglect.

By all accounts, Catholic Social Services has been one of those attentive agencies, offering foster care, via city referrals, to about 120 children per year. People like Sharonell Fulton – a CSS foster parent and one of the city’s foster parents of the year in 2015 – say they could not do what they do without CSS’s 24/7 availability.

Camera icon Courtesy of Sharonell Fulton
Sharonell Fulton has fostered over 40 children. She plants a tree or rose bush in her front yard with her foster children as a symbol of their growth.

But in March, DHS suspended its referrals to CSS and to another faith-based child-welfare provider, Bethany Christian Services, because both refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

Only Bethany, it must be said, appears to have formally made a refusal, when a woman applied to the agency to foster a child with her wife. There’s no formal evidence that CSS has ever refused a gay or LGBTQ couple, according to a lawsuit CSS filed against the city last week that alleges religious discrimination.

So it would appear that DHS’s suspension of referrals to CSS was a solution in search of a problem. Except that we don’t actually know how many same-sex couples simply don’t bother applying to CSS to be foster parents, as the Catholic Church’s disapproval of same-sex couples is well-known.

The disapproval is evident in the lawsuit, which has the temerity to characterize the city’s suspension of referrals as “political grandstanding.”

What a despicable way to characterize any defense of a same-sex couple’s right to expect treatment equal to that given to a straight couple. And what a telling indication of CSS’s underlying contempt for certain parents who earnestly seek to help a child by fostering.

But the city is no champion here, either. By suspending referrals to CSS, it’s decreasing the number of foster homes available to kids in crisis – which will undoubtedly increase the number of kids shuttled off to institutions. Thanks to Councilwoman Gym’s hearing last week, we know the potentially horrible consequences of that decision.

Yet the city made it anyway. It’s unfathomable.

What both sides need to do is get over themselves, for the sake of kids whose live are getting lost in this war of policies and beliefs.

The city has done so already, although reluctantly, since the suspension of referrals.

According to the suit, DHS hemmed and hawed but eventually allowed placement of a child with a CSS foster mother already caring for the child’s siblings (it’s considered a best practice to keep brothers and sisters together). But it took a court order for DHS to reunite another child with her former foster mother, a CCS client with whom the child had a good prior relationship.

What a disgrace.

But CSS has to stop with the nonsense, too. Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a Washington-based law firm that specializes in religious liberty cases and represents CSS, said that “because of its religious mission, Catholic Social Services can’t provide written certifications if doing so would contradict its religious beliefs.” Which is lawyer-speak for saying CSS won’t approve LGBTQ couples for fostering.

However, she added helpfully, “Catholic Social Services will always also make sure that any family who wants to foster will be able to apply to do so, whether Catholic Social Services works with them directly or refers them to one of twenty-six nearby agencies who can better serve their needs.”

Imagine if an all-white agency said something like that to potential foster parents of color, for example, or if a Jewish agency said it of Catholic applicants.

We’d be enraged, especially if the agency – like CSS – took great pains, as CSS has in its lawsuit, to paint its services and supports as superior to those of other fostering agencies. Yet they’d deny these enviable services to same-sex applicants, under the guise of religious liberty.

What’s so sad about this standoff is that both DHS and CSS are filled with good people doing their best to rescue kids from terrible circumstances. Both sides must give. Because the house is on fire, so to speak, there are kids inside and there’s no time to argue.

Get over yourselves. And get the kids out.