A new law that allows public and private foster care and adoption agencies to deny services and placement to people based on “sincerely held religious beliefs” will be toughest on youths in foster care, some local experts say.
And the organizations that serve youths are wondering how to help them navigate the new system. The law goes into effect Sept. 1.
“A lot of the focus on this law has been on the denial of services to LGBT adults wanting to adopt,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Equality Texas. “But the greater harm is in what might happen to youths who are in care if they happen to be placed in a situation where they are denied access to something they are legally entitled to.”
Smith said there are concerns that a child or youth will be placed in an agency, with a foster family or in an adoptive home that will force them to practice a religion that is different from their own or be subject to therapies or programs to deny their sexuality or their gender identification.
While the state’s Child Protective Services is responsible for placing children and youths with an adoption or foster care agency, Smith says those agencies are not required to disclose whether they might use the new law to deny a service or refer the youths to another agency. Every child that enters CPS is given an attorney advocate, but Smith says the reality is that the youths in foster care will carry 100 percent of the burden to let the state know if they’re not getting the services they’re entitled to get.
Laura Wolf, executive director of CASA of Travis County, said the role of attorneys and volunteers who advocate for children and youths in foster care will be more important than ever.
“It is incumbent on our child advocate volunteers to really make sure we’re building relationships with these kids, where they feel safe in disclosing things to us so we can make recommendations,” she said. “We train our volunteers to pay attention to what’s not being said and ask questions to really find out how they feel about where they are.”
Wolf, who has led CASA for 10 years, says she can’t think of an adoption or foster care agency that would use the new law to deny services. In fact, she said, it’s more likely that a foster care or adoption agency refers a child to a different agency if it can’t offer the counseling services that child needs or its it’s at capacity.wi
Smith says the law would most likely be used to protect an agency when it uses its religious beliefs to defend its practices, such as when youths ares forced to practice a religion that is different from their own.
Kathryn Gonzales, the operations and programs at Out Youth, a nonprofit that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people in Central Texas, said the new law makes its work even more difficult.
“We have young people coming to us now and asking, ‘How many more ways are they going to demonstrate to us that we don’t matter?’” she said.
“We’re actively planning how to support these youths, but the reality is these youths are already marginalized,” said Gonzales. “Remember, by and large they have been rejected by a family member for who they are. And now they may be rejected by a placement organization.”
According to a study by the Williams Institute, a research organization at the UCLA Law School, more than 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBT. Gonzales says that as young people are rejected by their families and foster families, the danger is that more of them will become homeless.
“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. We will be there as a second family and love and accept these youths for who they are.”
PHOTO: The yard at Out Youth’s house.
Editor’s note: This article was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 26, 2017.