Leaving Children Behind: Harmful Foster Care Bills Pending in Florida and Other States

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April 17, 2015

Almost twenty thousand. That’s how many children live in foster care in the State of Florida. This staggering number is the most recent data we have from the Federal government, based on a national point-in-time count in 2011. But in this same time frame, Florida actually lost 1,307 licensed family foster homes. Some left because of a happy ending—adoption of the children in their homes—but others simply closed their doors.

Tampa Bay Times Op-Ed: Bill makes it harder for children to find a home.

Florida, like many states, has a shortage of foster parents, but on April 9th a bill passed in the House of Representatives that would allow child-placing agencies, including those funded by the state, to turn away potential new foster and adoptive parents. HB 7111 is now headed for the Senate rules committee, to be heard on Monday afternoon, April 20th.  If passed, Florida’s so-called “Conscience Protection” Act (HB 7111) would permit child-placing agencies to refuse to place a child with LGBT potential foster or adoptive parents if the placement conflicted with the agency’s “religious or moral” convictions. The bill explicitly prohibits the state from denying state contracts to organizations for refusing to work with certain individuals or families. You can watch the hearing live via the Florida Senate media room.

Faith-based agencies who want to deny placement with LGBT individuals and families also work with LGBTQ youth. While HB 7111 doesn’t, on its face, permit discrimination against LGBTQ youth in care, it does send an incredibly disturbing message. How can LGBTQ youth feel safe in care knowing that their agency doesn’t approve of LGBT people?  Jorge Rivas, a writer with Fusion, focused on the troubling message HB 7111 sends to LGBTQ youth in care in a recent story.

The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), a 90-year-old organization representing hundreds of public and private child-serving member agencies in all 50 states, sent a letter to Florida House members denouncing the bill. CWLA said, “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.”

Unfortunately, the concept of protected discrimination in state-funded foster care is not limited to the State of Florida. In the past month, Texas, Alabama and Michigan have introduced similar bills in their state legislatures, and two Federal bills are currently live in the House and the Senate. North Dakota and Virginia have laws in place to allow this type of discrimination. These laws permit agencies’ belief systems to stand in the way of advocating for the best interests of children. The result? Fewer homes for kids who need them, and youth who receive a message from the state that they themselves aren’t welcome and can’t be good parents.

HB 7111 is harmful to some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents. It’s time to put the needs of children first, and to make sure that we have as many safe, loving homes for them as possible.