My most recent birthday was like so many others: My son brought me flowers and we spent a happy day together. But his story is quite different from most. I brought him into my home as a foster son when he was 5 years old, along with his 7-year-old brother. They had just spent weeks in the hospital healing from third-degree burns after an adult doused them with a pot of boiling water in a drug-induced rage. These boys lived in my home their entire childhood, and I raised them as my own, healing over time not just their wounds, but their hearts.
I have devoted my life to opening my home as a safe harbor to children like him who have endured unspeakable abuse and trauma. For the last 25 years, I have sheltered and loved more than 40 children, helping them piece their lives together and move on from hurt-filled pasts.
Now, it is my turn to feel the pain of rejection. The city I love recently and abruptly cut ties with the foster agency, Catholic Social Services, that helps me care for children. The City of Philadelphia claims it can no longer contract with Catholic Social Services because of its religious views.
As a single mom and woman of color, I’ve known a thing or two about discrimination over the years. But I have never known vindictive religious discrimination like this, and I feel the fresh sting of bias watching my faith publicly derided by Philadelphia’s politicians.
Oddly enough, the city’s decision to cut ties with Catholic Social Services came just weeks after the city announced an urgent need for 300 more foster families, as the rosters of children without safe homes continue to swell in the wake of the opioid crisis. As The New York Times recently put it, children in foster care are the youngest victims in our nation’s ongoing opioid plague. Philadelphia has been especially hard hit. Local media recently said, “Philly is ‘floating on opioids.’”
Catholic Social Services has been extraordinarily effective at placing children affected by that crisis and other harrowing situations into safe and loving homes. Last year, it supervised more than 100 foster homes, and its service to at-risk children in the city goes back more than an entire century. Why deny that service when homes for vulnerable children are needed now more than ever? The fates of hundreds of children and foster families hang in the balance.
Since the city made this decision, numerous foster homes with willing families are now sitting empty. Other families are facing additional obstacles to fostering siblings of their current foster or adopted children. And as for me, I worry every night what will become of the two special-needs foster children currently in my care, who could be taken from me if the city persists in discriminating against Catholic Social Services. These sweet children require significant ongoing care because of their extensive medical needs. It also took me quite some time to help these children learn that they could trust me and accept my love and care. Finding a new home for them will not be an easy task.
It was my faith that led me to become a foster mother to children, particularly children that society had abused and discarded. To see the city condemn the foster agency that has made possible my life’s work fills me with pain. To know that the City of Philadelphia may soon take from me the work that brings me the greatest joy frightens me. And to think that the city would rather score political points than to offer true hope and a future to our city’s most vulnerable children makes me angry.
The 6,000 and counting at-risk children waiting in Philadelphia’s foster care system deserve much better than having their futures jeopardized by our city’s leaders playing politics. They deserve hope, they deserve love, they deserve a city doing all it can to find them a home.
Sharonell Fulton is a foster parent in Philadelphia. She and several families and Catholic Social Services sued the City of Philadelphia to end a policy that would take homes from foster kids.