Discriminating in the Name of God Is Still Discrimination

Christina Wilson Remlin

Across the United States, there are an estimated 438,000 children in foster care, many of whom are hoping to find families to accept, nurture and protect them. Having represented thousands of these youth in federal class actions that challenge the lack of safe, stable foster homes and the overinstitutionalization of our kids, I know the importance of recruiting as many loving foster and adoptive parents as possible — including in Georgia, where children in state care have recently slept in hotels or offices due a lack of available homes.

But a new bill that recently passed the state Senate would actually deprive children of loving families.

Known as the Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, the bill paves the way for child-placing agencies, such as adoption organizations and foster care providers, to create unnecessary obstacles for potential LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents. It would also allow these agencies to refuse to serve LGBTQ youth on the basis of “religious freedom.”

As lead counsel on Kenny A. v. Deal, I represent a broad class of children that has suffered from the lack of appropriate homes in metro Atlanta. When we filed in 2002, our named plaintiffs included Kara B., a 14-year-old girl who had up to 15 different placements before ending up in a residential treatment facility where a staff member sexually abused her. Maya C., a former honor student, grew hopeless and abandoned her education after being placed in an emergency shelter.

Fast forward to 2018, when there has been a 73 percent increase in the foster care population — from 7,800 in 2013 to 13,500 in 2017 — due, in part, to the opioid epidemic. We desperately need more foster and adoptive homes, including affirming homes for LGBTQ youth, who are overrepresented in Georgia and across the country. A survey by the Williams Institute found that 13.6 percent of foster youth identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 5.6 percent as transgender, compared to 7.2 percent and 2.25 percent of the general youth population respectively.

These kids are at a heightened risk of being physically, verbally. and sexually assaulted or exploited, being placed in inappropriate and overly restrictive settings, and receiving inadequate and nonaffirming healthcare services. They are also at risk of experiencing rejection, violence, trauma, and religious condemnation due to their gender identity or sexuality, having suicidal thoughts, abusing substances, being vulnerable to sex trafficking, and resorting to survival sex to access safe places to stay.

In the face of this, Georgia stands out as being one of 10 states with no express protection against discrimination on account of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex (or gender) in child welfare policy, according to "Safe Havens," a landmark report by Children’s Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Meanwhile, Atlanta is lovingly referred to as the epicenter of the LGBTQ South. Georgia is home to over 260,000 LGBTQ adults and over 21,000 same-sex couples. Twenty percent of these couples are raising children, and 12 percent are raising adopted children, compared to 3 percent of different-sex couples

If state law authorizes providers to discriminate against this community, we lose an excellent potential foster and adoption resource. These LGBTQ couples will be alienated from the system, keeping loving families from being built, and inflicting needless trauma on the vulnerable young people the state of Georgia is charged with protecting. Additionally, the bill dramatically increases the risk that young people who identify as LGBTQ or are questioning their identity will be inadvertently placed in the custody of a provider who discriminates.

The consequences of that can be devastating. I remember interviewing a young man who had aged out of foster care a success story but was still haunted by the discrimination he experienced while in care. He went to college, had a part-time job working for the Methodist Children's Home, and even purchased a car on his own. But with tears in his eyes, he told me he still believed what his foster parents had told him for years — that gay people were condemned to hell.

Under color of state law, Georgia is trying to officially sanction this type of condemnation and discrimination. Now is the time to send Georgia’s House a strong message: the state cannot license providers to discriminate against loving foster or adoptive parents and youth in the name of God.

CHRISTINA WILSON REMLIN is a lead attorney for Children’s Rights, a national nonprofit advocacy organization.

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