What’s Best for Kids in Tennessee?

There are more than 443,000 children in the foster care system across the country and about 1,300 of those children live in Tennessee. For some of these children, foster homes are needed until they can return to their families. For others, adoption is the long-term goal.  And yet, there is a constant shortage of qualified families who step forward to welcome a foster or adoptive child in their homes.

Yet, lawmakers in Tennessee are currently considering legislation that would overlook the best interest of these children and instead allow state-contracted agencies to discriminate in choosing which families for placement. This legislation would harm the most vulnerable children in the state by limiting the families who could provide loving homes to them, simply because of who they are. Check out the Tennessee Equality Project for more information and ways to take action.

An ad, re-released and updated for 2019, from MAP, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), entitled “Kids Pay the Price,” vividly depicts the kinds of harms children can face when agencies and workers are allowed to prioritize their individual beliefs over the best interests of children. In the ad, a social worker is depicted saying she would rather keep a child in foster care than allow her to be adopted by a qualified gay or lesbian couple; a child placement worker says that her agency has strict beliefs, and if parents are Jewish, she shouldn’t have to place kids in those homes; and a placement worker says he shouldn’t have to place children in homes that don’t share his belief in “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

Tennessee isn’t alone in considering this type of action. Recent events have reached a crisis point, with an increasing number of states and even the federal government permitting taxpayer-funded discrimination at the expense of vulnerable children who need safe and loving homes.

Most recently:

  • In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted an exemption to the state of South Carolina to allow it to contract with agencies that refuse to consider families who do not meet a religious litmus test set by the agency. This waiver was precipitated by an agency that had turned away Jewish and Catholic perspective parents because they didn’t meet the agency’s Evangelical Christian standard.
  • Last year, three states passed legislation allowing agencies to discriminate.
  • A line item in the 2020 budget proposed by the Trump Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services states that the agency will allow child welfare programs to discriminate based on religious beliefs, following the issuance of the waiver to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries.

There is good news, however. Last month, the State of Michigan, in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of a lesbian couple turned away by state-contracted agencies, agreed to enforce nondiscrimination provisions in state child welfare contracts and to not permit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, and other characteristics. This brings the number of states that permit taxpayer-funded discrimination to eight (though two more states, Michigan and Alabama, permit discrimination by agencies that do not receive state contracts).

As Christine James-Brown, CEO and President of CWLA, explains at the end of the ad, “We have laws governing child services agencies for a reason,” James-Brown says in the ad. “When states allow adoption decisions to be based on a worker’s individual beliefs, rather than the best interests of children, it’s children who pay the price.”