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Social Services Wed Oct 19 2011

The Challenge of Catholic Charities, Foster Care, and LGBT Equal Rights

Illinois' foster care system is responsible for approximately 15,000 children. The Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) contracts with agencies to provide case workers for the children and find, process, and work with willing foster families to place children under their care. It is one of the most humane and important functions of the state, protecting children and finding homes for those in the unimaginably painful condition of being without a loving family. It is an awesome responsibility for any organization to assume, and the public is rightfully grateful for it.

This summer, the state of Illinois informed one of its oldest partners in the foster care program, Catholic Charities, that it was going to terminate its decades-old contract with them. The Catholic Charities' strictures against placing children with homosexual couples conflicted with the civil unions bill, 750 ILCS 75, passed earlier in the year. The statute provides in pertinent part,

Sec. 20. Protections, obligations, and responsibilities. A party to a civil union is entitled to the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses, whether they derive from statute, administrative rule, policy, common law, or any other source of civil or criminal law.

The state's move to terminate DCFS' relationship with Catholic Charities is a watershed and really communicates the difficulty of achieving equality for LGBT families. Catholic Charities have been doing good work for the neediest in our state, children subject to circumstances wholly not of their making. Children in the foster system often have strong relationships with their caseworkers, who find families, check in on them, and help them through the system at each step. Illinois' termination of their contract with Catholic Charities could mean yet another severed relationship in the lives of these children. But undoing generations of persecution and legalized discrimination isn't easy. It involves making sometimes painful, and often unpopular, decisions.

I'm sympathetic to Catholic Charities, insofar as I think that it has done very good work for thousands of children, and that there are scores of men and women who have worked for years for the reward of doing humane and socially useful work, who are suddenly going to have to sever the many relationships they've built over years. But it is important to remember that discrimination created this problem. Discrimination creates spaces in the social fabric, and when institutions grow in those spaces a lot of blameless people act under the auspices of that discrimination. Sudden changes can be uncomfortable or even painful. But those changes are necessary to serve basic notions of justice and fair play.

Catholic Charities' right to refuse to place foster children in the homes of homosexual couples is mirrored by the right of the people of Illinois to refuse to participate in a discriminatory practice. When the legislature passed the civil unions law--called in full, the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act--that is exactly what the people of the state agreed to do. To what degree the current system is disrupted, it is attributable not to "politics" but the social and institutional legacy of discrimination. Social relationships and institutions need to be reoriented to reconnect with those whose tethers to the social fabric had been frayed by discrimination. In other words, the law didn't make a practice discriminatory that hadn't been; rather the people empowered the state, through the law, to withdraw from those practices where they already existed.

I'm reticent to criticize Catholic Charities (and by extension the Catholic Church) for what is, by a plain dictionary definition of the word, a discriminatory practice, because it is a private organization and I'm not a member. I am a member of the polity though--of the state. I have a right to criticism of that institution. And I don't want the state to participate in a discriminatory practice.

This is precisely why a proposed bill to allow downstate Diocese to continue to work with the DCFS foster program should be defeated. There's no doubt that terminating the Catholic Charities contract will have some adverse affects for some children, but carving out exceptions for discrimination is not the solution. Nothing, least of all the law, can be absolute, but it is precisely these kinds of situations that need to be confronted, not excused. Firing Catholic Charities despite what good work they do is precisely how social relationships will start to change around a new legal and ethical framework. Legislative exceptions transforms meaningful legislation meant to heal the rifts caused by discrimination into mere symbolism.

The Illinois Civil Unions bill was a positive, material step forward, and exceptions will only drag it backward.

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Adopted / October 26, 2011 12:49 PM

The real issue is the loss of easy public money and total market share enjoyed by Catholic Charities.

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