Op-Ed: Foster Care & Adoption Agencies Deserve Better

Our Commonwealth’s foster care and adoption system is in a crisis.

For over a century, faith-based organizations have played a pivotal role in ensuring children and families have access to a range of services that best suit their personal needs in Pennsylvania.  However, Pennsylvania’s religious-affiliated adoption providers are now subject to punitive policies that limit opportunities for children to find permanency and for families to provide the stability, love and support they desperately need.

Last year, the PA Dept. of Human Services (DHS) – which receives significant federal funding under the Title IV-E Foster Care Program – changed the Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network (SWAN) affiliate contract language after Governor Wolf issued an executive order.

The regulatory changes were made without legislation or a vote, but instead by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s intolerant pen.

Actions by the Wolf administration have created a de facto religious litmus test that excludes any organization or group from providing adoption and foster care services, if their beliefs are ‘out of step’ with the capricious ideals of biased bureaucrats. This decision by the Wolf administration has forced faith-based adoption and foster care organizations to choose between their First Amendment rights or participating in the Federal Title IV-E program in Pennsylvania.

The changes also exceed the scope of non-discrimination provisions in federal statutes. By prohibiting religious organizations to participate in foster care and adoption programs – a service that some faith based organizations have provided for over a century – DHS is violating federal law protections for religious liberty.

In previous centuries, persecuted groups found safe haven and the freedom to live without retribution or punishment in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was renowned as one of the most tolerate of the original thirteen colonies, and was a place of refuge for a variety of religious groups including Mennonites, Amish, Quakers, Puritans and Catholics, among others.

Sadly, our 338 years of tolerance ended abruptly with the stroke of a pen. Now, the Wolf administration is punishing religious groups who do not abdicate their beliefs in exchange for the fickle mandates of bureaucrats, bent on imposing their views on others.  Not only is this a radical turn from Pennsylvania’s three-plus centuries of tolerance, but it is a violation of federal and state constitutions.

This violates our nation’s First Amendment by prohibiting the free exercise of religion and Article 1 of Pennsylvania’s constitution, which says that our citizens have a “natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences.” Article 1 goes onto delineate that “no human authority can, in any case…control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

Moreover, it violates federal statutes and regulations. Section 604a of Title 42 of the Constitution states that “neither the federal government nor a state receiving funds [for the provision of foster and adoption services] shall discriminate against an organization which is or applies to be the contractor to provide assistance, or which accepts certificates, vouchers or other forms of disbursements, on the basis that the organization has a religious character.”

The U.S. Health and Human Service regulations explicitly declare that “neither the HHS awarding agency, nor any state or local government and other pass-through entity receiving funds under any…program shall, in the selection of service providers, discriminate for or against an organization on the basis of the organization’s religious character or affiliation.”

Additionally, the Attorney General reinforced two of President Trump’s executive orders (E.O 13798 and E.O. 13831) by stating “government may not exclude religious organizations as such from secular aid programs, at least when the aid is not being used for explicitly religious activities.”

As the Wolf administration discriminates against religious institutions, thousands of children need help. For example, in 2018, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services conducted a state-wide appeal, calling for 300 more foster parents. There was no need for this desperate call for help, as scores of religious organizations could have joined in finding homes for these dear children. Instead of putting our children first, state bureaucrats chose to only allow organizations that embrace their narrow ideas on culture.  These bureaucrats preferred to deprive children of loving homes rather than allow religious organizations to find homes for them.  This was a crisis created by the Pennsylvania government and swift action is needed.

I am proposing a two-prong process to remedy this violation of our Pennsylvania freedoms and to help our children.

First, the state’s Department of Human Services must immediately reverse its unethical and illegal changes to the Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network (SWAN) affiliate contract language, so that faith-based organizations can again assist in the placement of children in foster care and adoption services. The infringement of religious liberties is unconscionable and illegal.

Second, I am urging the Trump Administration to safeguard the religious liberty that the Constitution affords the citizens of the United States of America, as well as our Commonwealth, and to protect the faith-based organizations that provide such critical services by enforcing federal statutes and federal law.

What happened to the tolerance and freedoms that the Commonwealth was historically based upon?

Our state’s foster care and adoption agencies deserve better.

Senator Mastriano represents the 33rd District in the Pennsylvania Senate. The District includes Adams County and parts of Franklin, Cumberland and York counties.

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