Adoption limits debated

Published 9:25 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Hannah Hess

Virginia Statehouse News

Child-placement agencies, such as Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Family Services, are asking Virginia lawmakers to ensure adoption workers can use religious and moral discretion when placing children.

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Senate Bill 349, sponsored by state Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, R-Virginia Beach, and House Bill 189, sponsored by Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, would allow private, faith-based, state-licensed child placement agencies to deny placing a child with a gay couple if doing so violates agency guidelines on religion or morality.

The bills would codify a change to Virginia code by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Now, only married couples and single men and women — regardless of sexual orientation — can adopt in Virginia, but a policy adopted by the state Department of Social Services allows the private agencies to deny adoption to gay couples to avoid violating religious or moral beliefs.

The House bill, referred to as the “conscience clause,” passed the state Senate on Tuesday, sending the measure to McDonnell, who has indicated he supports the bill.

Delegate Rob Bell, R-Charlottesville, also supports the bill.

“This also enables parents to have some ability to guide where their biological child will be placed” by choosing to work through the adoption process with a faith-based agency, Bell said.

But Democrats, including state Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudon, fear the conscience clause would prevent some foster couples from adopting children, which could narrow the pool of eligible families.

“When placing a child, the only factor should be what is best for the child,” Herring said. “Each and every one of those children should know that we are doing everything we can to find them a stable and loving home. The placing agency’s views — religious or otherwise — should not be a factor.”

Opponents worry that more children would be placed in group homes if fewer families were eligible to welcome foster children.

Carrie Cannon, a Northern Virginia woman who has worked with foster children for more than six years, said group homes are the worst possible environment for children who have been removed from their biological parents.

“It’s a staff environment — it’s not a family environment,” Cannon said this week.

She directs the Alexandria/Arlington Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, Program, a nonprofit that provides trained volunteers appointed by the court to serve as a direct voice for children in the juvenile court system.

At group homes, “people come there to work, then go home,” Cannon said. She said volunteers, who focus their attention on one or two children at a time, try to place foster children in family environments. Sometimes that means a relative’s home and, in other cases, a foster home.

CASA advocates recommend homes for children to the Virginia Department of Social Services. The state workers or one of the private agencies that contract with Virginia, such as Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Family Services, then decides.

Ultimately, a judge has to approve the decision.

The agencies are allowed to use their own discretion about which homes would be best for the children placed in foster care.

Those child-placement decisions are made by agencies such as Lutheran Family Services of Virginia, a faith-based corporation licensed by the state Department of Social Services to provide foster-care services.

Julie Swanson, of Roanoke, has served as CEO of the agency since 2005. She also has adopted and raised three children.

Swanson said that during the placement process, her agency looks for people with the “stability, skills and strengths” to become good parents.

The moral and religious views of the prospective parents play a role in shaping those decisions, she said, but they are not the only factor when deciding to certify an individual or couple to be foster parents.

“A religious zealot is as concerning as a person who does recreational drinking,” Swanson said. Neither may be fit for parenting, she said.