Opinion: Nessel, ACLU threaten adoption in Michigan

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer

Shamber Flore is fighting to keep open foster and adoptive homes for Michigan’s most vulnerable children. There are 13,000 of them today, and a recent deal between the state’s new Attorney General Dana Nessel and the ACLU threatens their placement in the kind of loving and stable “forever homes” that once took in Shamber and her two siblings. Michigan’s neediest children deserve better than Nessel’s awful new deal with the ACLU.

Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Until she was five, Shamber lived in her mother’s world of drugs, gangs and prostitution. Michigan’s Child Protective Services removed Shamber and her siblings from their birth home, initially placing each in separate foster care homes. Then St. Vincent Catholic Charities got involved. It found the kids one loving adoptive home that provided stability and safety.

For more than 75 years, St. Vincent has been successfully placing children in peril in loving homes in the Lansing area. Like Shamber, many in St. Vincent’s care are minorities. The agency also provides extra support for families with special-needs children and is well-known for placing older children and sibling groups. 

Tragically, Nessel’s settlement with the ACLU threatens St. Vincent’s work with Michigan’s most vulnerable children.

In September 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, taking issue with the state’s partnership with faith-based placement agencies like St. Vincent’s. The group demanded that the state terminate contracts with any private agency unable to place children in homes of same-sex couples.

Forget the fact that St. Vincent’s sincerely held religious beliefs regarding human sexuality and marriage guide the Catholic social service organization’s support of foster and adoptive families. Forget that St. Vincent’s refers couples it is unable to support in their quest to become foster or adoptive parents to other agencies. And forget that St. Vincent’s does nothing to prevent placement by numerous other agencies working in Michigan of children in homes of same-sex couples. It merely does not do so itself. The ACLU does not want nonconformists (faith-based organizations) working with the state at all — even ones that put kids first. 

Last month, Nessel settled the ACLU lawsuit. Her agreement prohibits private agencies working with the state from turning away or referring to another agency same-sex couples. State officials must now terminate contracts with any agency failing to comply with the settlement.

Nessel can hardly claim ignorance of the fact that Michigan's most effective partners in finding loving foster care and adoptive homes are faith-based groups like St. Vincent’s. Michigan’s legislature recognized this in 2015, finding that “[c]hildren and families benefit greatly from the adoption and foster care services provided by faith-based and non-faith-based child placing agencies.” 

It stated that ensuring faith-based agencies “can continue to provide adoption and foster care services will benefit the children and families who receive publicly funded services.” Legislators passed, and the governor signed, a child-protection law specifically allowing faith-based agencies to operate according to their religious principles. Nessel’s deal ignores the protections and balanced policy of this Michigan law.    

In failing to defend state law, Nessel also has short-circuited Michigan’s constitutional order. She has essentially issued an unlawful veto of a bill passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor. Her action is offensive to the rule of law.

Placement agencies often refer prospective foster or adoptive parents to other agencies for a variety of reasons. One agency may have a waiting list. Another may be closer to where the prospective family resides. Another may specialize in finding homes for black or Native American children. St. Vincent’s policy of referring same-sex couples to agencies capable of supporting their interest in fostering or adopting is compatible with this collaborative practice among placement agencies.    

Like most faith-based foster care and adoption programs nationwide, St. Vincent’s is a ministry of mercy. It’s part of the church’s mission to serve the most vulnerable. Nessel’s settlement agreement requiring private agencies to reject their religious teaching as a condition for continued partnership with the state may appease the ACLU, but it is unsettling for kids like Shamber Flore who dream of a “forever home.”          

With over 13,000 needy Michigan children in foster care, an “all-hands-on-deck” approach should be the order of the day. Instead, Nessel is more concerned with advancing a regressive agenda than finding homes for needy kids. Michigan’s children deserve better from the attorney general who swore an oath to protect them. 

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal adviser for The Catholic Association Foundation.