Op-Ed

Don’t deny foster kids loving parents

BATES
BATES

Why would Florida make it harder for qualified parents to adopt children in need of loving permanent homes? I’ve been asking this question while I’ve watched troubling events unfold in Tallahassee.

I'm an adoptive mom three times over, an adoption attorney and founder of a nonprofit adoption agency. I have represented all types of families. I know how difficult it can be to navigate the adoption process, both personally and professionally.

Right now, Florida’s foster-care system has 852 children ready to be adopted. The majority of these children have special needs and are often hard to place. Florida needs to do everything it can to increase the pool of qualified parents who can provide these children the permanent families they so desperately need. Indeed, the Florida Legislature recently approved a new set of tax-funded incentives for private agencies that handle all of the state’s foster-children adoptions.

Now, though, Florida senators are set to argue, yet again, over whether these state-funded agencies should be allowed to act against the best interests of children and use personal or religious bias to turn otherwise qualified parents away.

The Senate rejected a so-called “conscience protection” amendment once this month. But the House approved the bill and now on Monday a Senate committee is scheduled to discuss whether to send the matter to the full Senate for a vote.

Everyone knows which sorts of parents this bill is meant to address: gays and lesbians. But the bill is written so broadly that agencies could discriminate against any class of otherwise qualified parents — single people, biracial couples, people of different religious faiths, military couples — so long as they have a previous written policy of doing so.

Finding a family for a specific child should always be about meeting that child’s specific needs, not the needs of the placement agency. There are so many different types of needs faced by children in foster care, and they need all different types of families.

Adopting can be a challenging process, particularly through the state. By creating a system in which discrimination is allowed and even explicitly condoned, it discourages families from even considering adoption. This will hurt foster children who are at the mercy of the state because it limits the amount and type of adoptive families available.

There are more kids aging out of foster care every day who were never adopted. Discouraging any family from jumping in to adopt and limiting the pool of potential families deprives children from finding their forever family.

Earlier this month, four leading national child-welfare organizations — the Child Welfare League of America, Donaldson Adoption Institute, North American Council on Adoptable Children and Voice for Adoption — called on Florida to reject any law or policy that would allow adoption agencies, especially those receiving taxpayer support, from discriminating against otherwise qualified parents.

The harm inflicted by such obstacles is painfully real. When Nathaniel Gill was 4 months old, his 4-year-old brother went to neighbors begging for food. The state placed them in foster care with a gay male couple. “I was lucky to be placed with my brother,” Nathaniel, now 10, recalled recently. “He was all I had and he has looked after me since I was born.”

Because state law prevented it, Martin Gill couldn’t adopt and the boys would be separated since the younger brother was considered easier to place. Martin Gill would not fathom the cruelty of separating the brothers and fought the state’s ban on gay or lesbian adoptions families for four years. A state appellate court finally struck down the ban in 2010. When Florida’s Republican governor and attorney general decided not to appeal and the state stopped enforcing it, the two boys were adopted into the only real family they’d ever known.

Now they have a new little brother, an autistic boy from a group home where, as Nathaniel says, “There were no parents there, just people who worked there. They fed him and bathed him, but they didn’t love him. We felt bad for him, so my dad made him part of our family.

“Discrimination won’t get more kids adopted. It will just make them end up in foster or group homes.”

Because of time constraints, Nathaniel was prevented from giving his entire story to a House committee a few weeks ago. The Senate should listen to him now.

Maria T. Bates is an adoption attorney and the mother of three adopted children.

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