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  1. Opinion

Column: Bill makes it harder for children to find a home

Published Apr. 17, 2015

There are few things more heart-wrenching than a child in need of a family. Unfortunately, in Florida, as in all states, there are too many children in foster care who lack a stable, loving family to care for and nurture them. Finding a suitable foster or adoptive home can be a challenge, particularly for older children and those with special needs.

So it's distressing that the Florida Legislature is considering a bill — HB 7111 — that would make it more difficult for children to find families. The Florida House of Representatives just passed a bill that would authorize all child-placing agencies — including those that receive taxpayer funding under state contracts to care for children in state custody — to refuse to place a child with a qualified family just because that family doesn't meet the agency's religious or moral criteria.

The Senate Rules Committee will take up the bill Monday. If the bill becomes law, agencies could turn away prospective parents even when placement with the family would be in the best interest of a child in foster care waiting for a permanent home.

The sweeping language of this bill could have devastating effects for the children in Florida's foster care system. Though the bill is an effort to allow agencies to refuse to place children with lesbian and gay parents (which would be profoundly inappropriate in its own right given that sexual orientation has no bearing on an individual's ability to be a good parent), the fact is that it has much broader implications.

We live in a diverse society with diverse religious and moral beliefs. If this bill becomes law, agencies — whether religiously affiliated or not — could refuse to make placements with qualified families for countless reasons that have no relevance to the needs of children or the family's ability to provide a safe, loving home for a child. For example, an agency could refuse to make a placement with prospective parents solely because they are of a different faith than the agency, because they don't go to church, or because they are single or divorced.

If this law is enacted, many children could be deprived of the family that is best suited to meet their needs. A child could be denied a placement with a relative. A sibling group could be denied placement with the one family that is willing to keep them all together. A child with significant medical needs could be denied a placement with a nurse who has the skills to properly care for her.

In addition, by allowing agencies to turn away qualified families, more Florida children could be left with no family at all. Florida already has far too many children waiting for families to come forward to adopt them. If people who are willing and able to open their hearts and homes to a child in need are turned away for religious or moral reasons, we can't count on them continuing to knock on doors of other agencies until they are welcomed.

This bill flies in the face of well-established professional child welfare standards, which provide that placement decisions must be based on the needs of the child and, to ensure the broadest pool of families for children, mandate that "applicants should be assessed on the basis of their abilities to successfully parent a child needing family membership and not on their race, ethnicity or culture, income, age, marital status, religion, appearance, differing lifestyle or sexual orientation."

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This is not about religious liberty. In instances where birth parents choose to place their children for adoption and decide to work with an agency to have their child placed with a family of a particular faith, they already have the right to do so. But when children are removed from their families by the state because of abuse or neglect, the state has a duty to place them in homes based on the children's needs and the prospective family's capacity to meet those needs, not the religious or moral beliefs of the agencies it hires to find them families. These children have the right to have their placement decisions made based on child welfare criteria, not religious criteria.

Children in foster care have been through so much already. The last thing they need is a law that will make it harder for them to find the security of a loving home.

Christine James-Brown is president/CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, the nationally recognized standard-setter for child welfare services. Its members include hundreds of public and private child-serving agencies in all 50 states. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.