Friday, May 06, 2011

DCFS says it can handle a Catholic Charities exit from foster care

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services says it can make other plans if Catholic Charities pulls out of its contracts to administer foster care and adoption programs in the state.

Catholic leaders are pushing a bill in the General Assembly that would allow them to refer to another agency couples who have civil unions and are seeking to become adoptive or foster parents. Senate Bill 1123 failed to get enough votes in a Senate committee last month to make it to the floor for a full vote. Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said there is enough support to pass the legislation if it came before the full Senate.

Gilligan said without passage of the bill, Catholic Charities would no longer be able administer foster care and adoption services for DCFS because it would be forced to place kids with couples who are “cohabitating” under civil unions instead of a marriage, and this would violate the church’s values. “We want to continue to contract with the state of Illinois to provide foster care and adoption services, but if the law is not changed we’ll be faced with the very real possibility of being forced out of providing these services to very poor and vulnerable children,” Gilligan said.

“We are preparing for that possibility,” said Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for DCFS. Marlowe said the state has a model of how to make do without the organization. He said the department had to transfer about 1,000 children to other providers after Catholic Charities in Chicago stopped providing the services in 2007. The organization made the move after being dropped by its insurance provider.

Marlowe said most people are not aware that the number of children in the system has shrunk dramatically in recent years — from about 52,000 children in 1997 to about 15,500 today. More than 2,670 of those children are currently under the care of Catholic Charities. He said the decrease in the overall number is a product of the department’s work to find permanent home placements for more kids. “We got much better at getting kids out of the system that didn’t really need to be there.”

He added, “Illinois has one of the most highly privatized child welfare programs in the country.” Marlowe said with more than 80 percent of the system handled by private entities, DCFS would have a large network of providers to help pick up the slack. He said there are areas in the southern part of the state where Catholic Charities is the only provider. “We would transfer the cases to existing agencies but it would be a significant challenge. I don’t mean to candy coat that or underplay that in any way,” he said. If Catholic Charities were to stop providing care, he said DCFS would likely need existing agencies to expand their services to some areas. “It is a significant challenge, but we would meet it.”

Marlowe said currently Catholic Charities, along with other faith-based agencies in the state, refer same-sex couples to other entities for adoption and foster care licenses, a policy he calls an “awkward compromise.” The Illinois Attorney General’s office, DCFS and Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration are currently reviewing the practice. “DCFS and the Illinois child welfare system serve children and families without regard to sexual orientation,” he said. “There is the question of whether private agencies can use public money to discriminate in this way.”

Representatives of the church say it is not seeking to discriminate but instead to continue practicing its values by referring couples who are in living situations that it does not condone to another provider or to DCFS. They note that same sex couples are currently adoptive and foster parents in the state.

“Gay individuals and gay couples right now in the state of Illinois are adoptive parents and they are foster parents. And…they were in no way impeded because of our belief from becoming foster parents or adoptive parents. They’re out there, and they’re doing a good job as far as we know, and that’s fine,” said Steven Roach, executive director of Springfield Catholic Charities. “After civil unions [goes into effect,] no civil unions couple will be denied the opportunity to become a foster parent of an adoptive parent. There will be no change. … This bans nothing. And when you hear words like discrimination please keep in your mind not one — not one — civil unions couple will be denied the opportunity to become a foster parent or an adoptive parent in the state of Illinois because of our belief.”

But equal rights activists say that the church is asking for the right to discriminate while administering state-funded programs. “I think no matter how you look at this question … it is just outrageous,” said Bernard Cherkasov, chief executive officer of Equality Illinois. “They are trying to replace the best-interest-of-the-child standard with their own religiously based and sometimes biased standard.”

Gilligan said Catholic Charities is not setting an ultimatum for lawmakers, but instead urging them to make the change. He said they have not yet made a final decision on the issue. “We don’t want to get to that point. That’s why we’re urging the General Assembly to pass this legislation. … June 1 [when civil unions go into effect] is an important date,” Gilligan said.

Marlowe said any entity that contracts with the state is agreeing to uphold Illinois law. He said if Catholic Charities cannot do that, they may be unable to contract with DCFS. “That would be an unfortunate outcome, but it would be a choice that they are making.”

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