(RNS) — During President Trump’s State of the Union Tuesday night (Jan. 30), the American public got to meet an everyday hero, Officer Ryan Holets. Officer Holets and his wife, Rebecca, came into the spotlight after they graciously offered to adopt the baby of Crystal Champ, a homeless woman battling heroin addiction while she was eight months pregnant.
Last September, in what he described as an act of providence, Officer Holets stumbled upon Crystal. Today she calls the Holets her “guardian angels” because of the couple’s decision to open their home to her baby, whom they named Hope.
Stories like Crystal’s are increasingly common throughout the United States, but happy endings like Baby Hope’s are still far too rare.
As President Trump pointed out last night, “In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour.” It should be no surprise to find that these deaths are having a dramatic impact on the foster care system.
Today, drug abuse is the No. 1 driver of children into the foster care system. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 92,000 children were removed from their homes because of a parent’s drug abuse in 2016. These children make up one-third of the 437,500 children in foster care.
Recent studies have found a correlation between counties with higher opioid prescriptions, opioid deaths and those with an increase of foster care cases linked to drug abuse. In Florida, drug abuse is the single greatest factor contributing to the increase of children entering foster care. The number of children entering foster care in the state has risen by 129 percent in only three years.
Similarly, Montana, Georgia and West Virginia have seen drastic increases in the number of children entering foster care because of parental drug abuse. In Ohio, 1,000 more children spent last Christmas in foster care because of their parents’ opioid addictions.
And the prospects for children in foster care are grim. About 60 percent of the boys and half the girls end up in jail at some stage of their lives. One-third of young adults who are homeless were once in foster care.
Faith has inspired countless individuals and families such as the Holetses’ to step up for children in great need. Only since the first half of the 20th century has the state taken such a prominent role in child welfare. Christians founded the earliest orphanages in America and up until the turn of the 19th century, only 1 in 10 children’s homes or orphanages were publicly run.
Today, child welfare services are for the most part secular, publicly funded and state-run — and they are struggling. The dropout rate for foster parents who work directly with the state is almost 80 percent in the first two years. At least half the 50 states have seen a decrease in their foster care capacities. And according to a new report, in only three states did the number of children in foster care stay constant or decrease.
States such as Georgia have been so overburdened that they have had to call on churches for help to care for foster children. Faith communities have responded with innovative solutions such as Project 1.27, a nationwide organization that seeks to connect churches and foster care agencies to provide every child in a state with a “forever family.” Faith groups have also pioneered new approaches, such as the 111 Project’s “one church, one family” model in which one church collectively and permanently invests in one child by supporting a pair of foster parents in its congregation.
Ultimately, these private, faith-based initiatives are critical to America’s ability to provide long-term solutions for the needs of all the children impacted by the drug crisis. In Illinois, the faith-based agency Catholic Charities served more than 3,000 children, 18 percent of the total number of children in foster care in 2011. Bethany Christian Services provided adoption, foster care placements and other services to over 188,000 people. Yet, despite the large portion of care these agencies provide, their future is increasingly in peril.
Problematic legislation and legal activism are being deployed across the country to thwart the ability of faith-based child welfare agencies to serve children in need and families who want to love them.
In 2011, the state of Illinois displaced the 3,000 children Catholic Charities served when government officials canceled the agency’s contracts because of its belief that every child deserves both a mom and a dad. Eighteen percent of the state’s children in foster care were casualties of cultural battles among adults. They were needlessly uprooted from friends and family and transplanted to new, foreign environments. Prospective parents looking to foster and adopt were turned away, virtually having to restart the process at a different agency.
Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to overturn a law in Michigan that protects the ability of child welfare agencies to follow their religious beliefs. If successful, the ACLU will challenge similar laws in other states. Michigan’s current law takes nothing away from anyone. Everyone who wants to adopt or foster a child can do so since there is already a wide variety of child welfare agencies and the state itself from which to choose.
The lawsuit simply seeks to force every single agency in the state to conform to the same set of beliefs. In Ohio, cultural activists have introduced HB 160, which will not only force child welfare agencies but also religious groups who are helping adults battling addiction to violate their religious beliefs.
Pulling the plug on religious organizations will not increase the chances that a single child will end up in a “forever family.” But as Illinois shows, it will displace many children and needlessly create new trauma in their lives.
Every child in the foster care system deserves to be in a loving, capable family — forever.
In order for this to happen, birth parents and prospective foster and adoptive parents need the most agencies to choose from, including those that share their values and will provide them with spiritual support when they want it.
No state can afford to shut down agencies that serve as a lifeline between children in crisis and the families that can provide them with hope and a future. Rather, both state and federal government should protect the freedom of all agencies to operate according to their beliefs so that they can connect the most children with the most families for a lifetime.
Federal lawmakers have introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would ensure that no child welfare agency would be punished for its beliefs.
Only by protecting the freedom of all child welfare agencies can we ensure that the greatest number of children can be given the same kind of future that Baby Hope now has with her guardian angels.
(Emilie Kao is director of The DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. Jared Eckert is a member of the foundation’s Young Leaders Program.)