Diversity in the Sphere of Child Placement Agencies

Many faith-based non-profit organizations, specifically those who specialize in placing children in adoption and foster-care settings, have played a pivotal and indispensable role in securing homes and families for children in states across the nation. To highlight a tangible example of such faith-based child placement agencies, I am going to focus on the case of Michigan. Currently, Michigan state law does not fully protect the faith-based tenants and freedoms of these para-church, child-placement organizations. The very existence of these religious-conscience driven agencies, and the invaluable role they place in Michigan’s adoption and foster-care system, is threatened.  According to the Detroit News, the Michigan Catholic Conference is strongly advising state legislative representatives to enact statutes to ensure the faith-based freedoms of these groups to continue making their unique contribution to Michigan families’ well-being when they place children in permanent homes or temporary living situations.

This summer, two bills were brought forth in the Michigan House of Representatives whose aims were to thwart circumstances in which faith-based child placement agencies would be strong-armed into placing children in family situations that contravened their faith-motivated tenets. According to the Michigan Catholic Conference, about 45 percent of placements in the foster-care system are initiated and overseen by non-profit organizations, particularly agencies driven to do this work because their faith calls them to. Additionally, approximately 10 percent of adoptions in the state are carried out by Catholic institutions. The bills introduced in the House several months ago are preemptively attempting to prevent a disaster for faith-based adoption and foster-care placement organizations in the case of same sex marriage or civil unions ever being legalized in Michigan.  

Given the fact that approximately 14,000 young people are in the foster –care system in Michigan and an estimated 3,000 of these children are eligible to be adopted and placed in permanent homes, the protection of faith-based child placement agencies’ rights to live out the doctrines of their faith are essential to the continued functioning and thriving of Michigan’s child placement mechanisms and institutions.  Catholic child-placement groups in other states, including Massachusetts, California, and Illinois, have already chosen to close their doors permanently to avoid being forced to contradict their most fundamental of beliefs about what constitutes a family-unit suitable for the placement of a child.


 Many faith-based nonprofit organizations, especially those of the Judeo-Christian tradition, actually operate out of a calling from their own faiths to serve their neighbors, advance justice, and protect the orphans and society’s most vulnerable. Psalm 10:18 states, in part, “defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.”  Isaiah 58:7 states, “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” And in the New Testament, James 1:27 states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The proposed laws in the Michigan House would provide shelter legally for para-church organizations whose very motivations to exist originate in their most sacred of texts and basic of teachings. Such legislation would enable them to preserve their conscious-driven missions. As discussed above, in other states when religious child-placement institutions were threatened with legal repercussions for refusing to violate their creeds and place children in single-parent or same-sex parent homes, they instead made the difficult, but only choice, to leave the child-placement field entirely.  The real losers in this situation are the children who continue to be fatherless and the many loving couples of faith seeking to provide those children with secure families in line with the faith beliefs of the child placement agencies. These century-old, revered and community-supported organizations, such as Catholic Charities, are slowly ceasing to exist in some of the neediest cities in the country.

Yet these faith-based child placement agencies are just one player in a diverse and varied system.  There are many secular adoption agencies and foster-care organizations that eagerly place children with non-traditional families.  These religious agencies are not trying to stamp out every other child placement option out there in diverse communities. They are simply trying to live according to the same beliefs that have driven them for decades to serve the most vulnerable in their communities.  According to Jim Skillen of the Center for Public Justice, “Principled pluralism means that government is obligated to do justice to society's nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle. It means that government should give equal treatment to different communities of faith.” The tolerance, allowance and even welcoming of variety and difference in the sphere of child placement is absolutely essential to the future of Michigan families.

Critical voices claim that bills of this type, in Michigan and across the country, would inhibit same-sex couples, single adults, and other non-traditional family units from fostering children or even adoption.  However, this is simply false.  As the value of principled pluralism is stated above, so is it played out in communities around the state, and throughout America.  These proposed statutes do not limit the rights of other child placement institutions from placing children in non-traditional home environments. As the Detroit News Editorial, Preserve religious freedom in adoptions, puts it: “The law simply offers security to faith-based groups to continue providing a valuable service.”

- Chelsea Langston is an attorney who works at a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, DC.