Column: End discriminatory child placement practices

Ismael Ahmed

As you’re driving around the state, it’s hard to miss advertisements on the radio or a billboard addressing the need for foster and adoptive parents. Which makes it baffling that the state of Michigan allows placement agencies that it hires to find families for children to turn away prospective families headed by same-sex couples based on agencies’ religious objections to those families. Now, families are standing with the ACLU of Michigan to challenge this practice and ensure that children don’t pay the price for this discrimination.

Michigan has 13,000 children in the foster care system and not enough stable, loving families available to care for them. As former director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, I saw firsthand the tremendous need for more families for our children and the importance of welcoming every family that was willing and able to open their hearts and home. At the department, it was a priority to recruit a larger pool of families to ensure that the children in Michigan’s foster care system had the greatest opportunity to be placed in an adoptive or foster home where they could flourish and grow up to be productive members of the community.

When the state allows good families to be turned away for religious reasons that have no bearing on their ability to care for a child, the children are the ones who suffer. The consequences include being placed in group homes rather than families, being separated from siblings, and aging out of foster care without ever finding a family.

We don’t know how many families our children are losing as a result of the state permitting this conduct by its contracted agencies. But we can’t afford to lose even one loving family. And when the state allows the religious beliefs of agencies to override children’s placement needs, what’s to prevent agencies from turning away qualified families on the grounds that the family doesn’t share the agency’s faith, doesn’t attend church, comes from a different culture, or is a single-parent family?

Some argue that prospective parents who are rejected by agencies due to religious objections can just go to another agency. Even if that may be true in some parts of the state, it misses the point. The child welfare system exists to serve children. And children do not have a choice of which agency will be placing them. They cannot ask to be assigned to an agency that will put them in the best position possible to find a home. And when agencies reject families based on religious criteria, we can’t count on those families to continue to knock on doors where they face the risk of further discrimination until they find an agency that welcomes them.

We must put children first. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services should stop allowing the child placement agencies it hires to find families for children — and pays with taxpayer dollars — to discriminate against prospective parents based on the agencies’ religious objections. Good families come in all faiths (or no religious faith), all cultures, and in variety of family structures. We need all of them to ensure that we give our children the best possible chance of finding the family they need.

Ismael Ahmed is former director of the Michigan Department of Human Services.