The Department of Health and Human Services let South Carolina discriminate against LGBTQ people in the foster care system.
The Democratic majority staff of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday issued a new report on the results of its investigation into a waiver issued to the state of South Carolina by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2019 that granted it "an exemption from HHS regulations that prohibit discrimination in the state's child welfare system."
In 2018, South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster requested the waiver on behalf of an agency called Miracle Hill Ministries, which, according to the report, "recruits foster parents and rejects other prospective foster parents exclusively based on religious status and sexual orientation." The waiver, approved in January of the following year, allows South Carolina to "distribute federal funds to foster care agencies with discriminatory practices."
Miracle Hill says on its website that it requires "that foster parents who partner with us be followers of Jesus Christ, be active in and accountable to a Christian church, and agree in belief and practice with our doctrinal statement." That doctrinal statement says that "God's design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship," and that "God creates each person as either male or female, and these two distinct, complementary sexes, together reflect the image and nature of God."
Prospective foster parents must also provide information on which church they attend and a personal testimony of their "faith/salvation in Christ."
According to the Greenville News, Miracle Hill received $600,000 last fiscal year from the state Department of Social Services to help pay care coordinators.
In the course of its investigation, the Democratic staff of the Ways and Means Committee compiled examples of people who were rejected as potential foster parents by Miracle Hill. These included a married couple, Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch, who said they were rejected as foster parents by the agency last year because of their sexual orientation and because they are members of a Unitarian Universalist church.
Rogers and Welch said they had contacted Miracle Hill because it was one of the larger and better-known foster care agencies in their area. They said that in April they told Miracle Hill on an online form that they were a same-sex couple and “would like for more children to know what it feels like to be unconditionally loved and to be part of a loving family." The couple said they were rejected immediately.
The ACLU, Lambda Legal, and South Carolina Equality Coalition filed a lawsuit in 2019 against the state of South Carolina and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Rogers' and Welch's behalf.
The South Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers sent a letter to Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal after the waiver had been granted explaining that it would go against the best interest of children by not providing them with the full range of homes available to them. This was particularly true in the case of LGBTQ children, it said, since they could be placed in a foster home that does not support them.
“Foster children who identify as LGBTQ are especially vulnerable as a result of this ruling; they are at risk of placement in a home that stigmatizes or condemns them, affecting their self-esteem, self-worth, and mental health," the group wrote.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2019 found that 30.4% of youth in foster care are LGBTQ, while 11.2% of 12- to 18-year-olds said they were LGBTQ in the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Ian Thompson, senior legislative representative with the ACLU, condemned what he said is unconstitutional discrimination by the Trump administration and said every qualified family should be able to care for a child.
"The 440,000 children in our nation's child welfare system need every qualified family that is willing to open up their homes to care for them. There's no reason families who are LGBTQ, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise don't meet an agency's religious test should be turned away from being foster parents," Thompson said.
The Ways and Means Committee listed reasons it had concluded that the waiver should be withdrawn immediately:
- The waiver violates civil rights and the mandate to operate in the best interest of a child by denying appropriate, safe, loving, and affirming foster home placements.
- The waiver allows discrimination within the foster care system based on religion and sexual orientation.
- The waiver intentionally harms LGBTQ children, adults, and families.
- The waiver takes a statute meant to protect people of minority faiths and inappropriately uses it to discriminate against the same religious minorities the law is meant to protect.
- The waiver establishes a troubling precedent to use regulatory authority intended for technical, grant-management purposes to make substantive policy changes without consulting Congress or assessing the impact of the policy change on foster youth.
- The waiver sets a precedent that promotes discrimination of, and harm to, individuals in other states.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the basis for the waiver, "was never intended as a shield for discriminatory practices that violate the civil rights of others. Consequently, HHS’s reliance on RFRA as a justification was improper and set a harmful precedent," the report said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.