Private charities housing undocumented immigrant children in several states are permitted by law to reject prospective foster families based on religious objections.
Under current policy, undocumented minors apprehended by Customs and Border Protection are sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services. From there ORR tries to place the kids with a sponsor, usually a relative. The last option is a “licensed program willing to accept legal custody; or an adult individual or entity seeking custody.”
Right now, HHS oversees more than 100 shelters in 17 states, a number of which are operated by nonprofit providers housing kids separated at the border by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. In nine states, providers are protected by law if they reject an applicant (or child) on religious grounds.
In Texas, Republican-sponsored legislation passed last year guarantees organizations that refuse prospective foster or adoptive parents “under circumstances that conflict with the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs,” won’t be penalized or lose government funding because of it.
When adoption attorney James Greenberg’s client, a single woman from the Northeast, found a child in the Texas foster care system that she wanted to adopt, she applied with a private Christian agency there. (Greenberg said the child was not an immigrant caught in the current crackdown.)
“The agency would not entertain her application, they wouldn’t take on my client,” Greenberg told The Daily Beast. “I remember I inquired why, and the entity indicated that they don’t take single women.”
Greenberg, who was born in Bogota, Colombia to a Catholic mother and raised by an adoptive Jewish family in the New York suburbs, believes there was another motivation at play with the faith-based agency, which he declined to name.
"I think that Texas is homophobic and the immediate assumption is, if someone's single, that they're gay,” he said, adding that most of his single clients no longer bother trying to adopt there.
For at least the past few years, a Texas nonprofit now looking after separated immigrant children has said on its website that all foster parents “must attend a Christian church.”
BCFS Health and Human Services, a Baptist charity based in San Antonio, and has been housing undocumented kids in several locations including a tent city outside El Paso, where up to 20 percent of them are said to have been forcibly separated from their parents. BCFS recently received an HHS contract for “Unaccompanied Alien Children Reunification Mission” worth $9.96 million.
After The Daily Beast reached out to BCFS for comment, the requirement for foster parents to be active churchgoers disappeared from the organization’s website. Also gone was the statement: “At BCFS, it is our mission to give children a new life with Christian care and guidance.”
BCFS spokesperson Evy Ramos told The Daily Beast, “We ask for Christian families because the overwhelming majority, nearly 100 percent, of the children placed in our foster care program define themselves as Christian or are children from a family that define themselves as Christian. Because of this, we actively seek foster families that attend a Christian church.”
Of the requirement’s removal from the site, Ramos said BCFS had received “other inquiries such as yours and we removed it to prevent any confusion. The Foster Care criteria list on our website is for potential foster care parents. This is separate from the questions ORR directs us to ask of potential sponsors for UAC's [Unaccompanied Alien Children].”
When appropriate, Ramos said BCFS has placed Muslim children in Muslim foster homes, adding, “We always do what is in the best interest of the child.”
A 2015 message to stakeholders from BCFS CEO Kevin Dinnin remained on the site as of this writing, saying, “At the heart of our vision is the desire to be the hands and feet of Christ; to provide care, service, and compassion that is pleasing to our Lord and honors His love of all mankind. This Christ-centered mission and our ever-present drive to do the right thing has proven to be a rock-solid pathway for BCFS.”
BCFS is not the only faith-based contractor currently housing unaccompanied minors for the U.S. government or receiving federal funds.
Bethany Christian Services headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan requires employees abide by the agency’s “statement of faith,” which states, among other things, “God Himself begins each human life at conception.” Michigan’s religious exemption law for child services providers has been on the books since 2015.
Bethany has received at least $22 million from federal government contracts in recent years. As of the end of June, Bethany had taken in 81 children separated from their parents at the border, typically ranging from ages seven and nine. According to Bethany’s statistics, nearly half the children separated from their families under zero tolerance have been reunited with their families. Recently, Bethany announced that all separated children in its care below the age of five had been reunited with their parents or were making travel arrangements to do so.
Not all faith-based providers have religious requirements. The Salvation Army describes itself as “an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”
But as Salvation Army Children's Services outreach coordinator Angie Gillen told The Daily Beast, “We welcome families of all faiths and both heterosexual and homosexual couples or individuals are eligible to be licensed as foster or adoptive families with us. The important thing is to find families who will be able to give safe and nurturing homes to children in need.”
The way religious exemption laws are worded, they could theoretically be used to exclude not just members of the LGBTQ community and single parents but “to discriminate against anyone,” Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBTQ division of Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast.
According to a report released last year by the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Social Policy, this could exclude otherwise qualified secular or interfaith couples, atheists, even couples in which one spouse had previously been divorced.
Religious freedom provisions may also be used to force foster children to abide by an individual organization’s religious requirements including sending LGBTQ kids to conversion therapy, a Texas lawyer told the Associated Press last year. The laws give private faith-based agencies the right to refuse to provide access to birth control or abortion services to young people in their care.
For these reasons, it’s “not just an LGBTQ issue, but also a children’s rights issue, that the state is placing kids with agencies that are prioritizing their own religious beliefs over the best interests of the child,” said Thoreson. “If you’re a child at an agency that won’t place kids with LGBT people, single women, a Muslim family, that really restricts the options for the vulnerable child in your care because there may be plenty of qualified parents willing to take those children in.”
Therein lies the real problem, said Ronald Richter, a former family court judge who served as the child welfare commissioner of New York City. Richter is now CEO of New York foster care provider JCCA which runs a federally funded, long-term foster care program for unaccompanied refugee children.
“I wouldn’t want agencies to be ruling potential resources out based upon religion,” Richter told The Daily Beast. “Certainly you want for the children to know that the state is doing everything it can to recruit strong, diverse, thoughtful, caring resources for them.”
Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School and director of the university’s Program on Church, State & Society, doesn’t see a problem with such faith-based eligibility criteria “so long as there are other options available for people who do not meet these criteria and so long as it is clear that the government is supporting the service provisions, not the religious criteria.”
“Should the government say that every such organization, in order to operate legally, must follow the same policies (including non-discrimination policies) that publicly-run organizations do?” In my view, the answer to this question should be ‘no,’” Garnett said in an email, noting that there are many faith-based religious schools and colleges that receive public funds, both directly and indirectly.
Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, said she thinks “we will see more people and organizations pushing boundaries” on religious protections at the expense of the children they say they are trying to help.
“A lot of people have put their head in their hands and said, ‘Oh my God, how can this be happening,’” said LaLiberte of the treatment child immigrants have received under Trump.
“In reality, this is the history of our country. We sold the babies of slaves; we essentially kidnapped Native American children and sent them to boarding schools with the sole purpose of eradicating the ‘Indian’ from them. Faith-based organizations were part of those movements, in the justification of, ‘This is going to be better for them.’ Unfortunately, I think what you’re seeing is something that never really did go away.”