Opinion: Put children first in adoption case

Lori Windham

Melissa and Chad Buck didn’t expect one of their greatest disappointments to lead them to the most rewarding calling of their lives. After years of trying to have a child of their own, Melissa and Chad turned to a local religious adoption agency, St. Vincent Catholic Charities.

Chad and Melissa Buck of Holt have adopted five children through St. Vincent.

When, to their great surprise, they were asked to adopt three biological siblings at one time, they said yes. And then they said yes to two more children. Now they are the proud parents of five adopted children, all with special needs. Melissa likes to joke that the movie “Instant Family” is based on her life. Having experienced the profound joy of adoption, Melissa has made it her personal mission to convince more couples to share in that joy and consider adopting through St. Vincent. Over the last eight years, Melissa has helped recruit nine families and facilitated the adoption of 10 children from the state’s foster care system.

The Bucks, and families like theirs, are heroes of a foster care system in crisis. Even with five children, the Bucks remain open to adopting more of their children’s biological siblings if needed, and they are committed to helping more families adopt and foster with St. Vincent. But that may soon become impossible if St.Vincent is shut down.

The Buck family

When Chad and Melissa Buck made the decision to adopt, they never expected that they would become embroiled in a legal battle over the future of St. Vincent, an agency that has supported the Bucks for years—much less one at the center of a nationwide adoption debate. The debate centers around whether religious agencies must be shut down if they cannot, in good conscience, provide written endorsements for same-sex couples.

Already, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Buffalo, and the state of Illinois have forced faith-based adoption agencies to close, and several more agencies are entangled in court battles, all amid a nationwide adoption and foster care crisis. That crisis is only growing worse as with children flooding into the system, their lives the collateral damage of an opioid epidemic.

When the state makes the difficult decision to remove a child from their birth home, it is in that child’s best interest to be placed with a loving foster family as quickly as possible. Some of those children will return to their birth parents, but others will remain in the foster system, hoping that they will one day be adopted by a loving family. Unfortunately, recruiting, training, and supporting foster and adoptive families is no small task. This is why governments turn to a broad array of agencies — many with unique specialties — to recruit and support the diverse pool of foster and adoptive families.

To become a foster or adoptive parents, families must work with an agency to complete an incredibly intrusive home study. Home studies dig into past and current relationships, family dynamics, parenting philosophies, financial stability, mental health and marital stability. Some religious agencies, like St. Vincent, cannot complete a written home study and endorsement for same-sex and unmarried couples because of what their faith teaches about the nature of marriage. They refer those couples to other agencies who would be a better fit.

Several Michigan agencies are certified by the Human Rights Campaign as experts in serving LGBTQ families. Other agencies specialize in serving the Native American population, or children with disabilities. A diverse network of collaborative agencies is what makes the system work best for children in need.

Faith-based agencies like St. Vincent are a crucial part of this system. St. Vincent recruits more homes overall than the average agency and can find homes for children with disabilities at nearly double the average rate across the state. Without agencies like St. Vincent, special needs children like the Bucks’ might age out of the system without ever finding a loving home.

In 2015, Michigan arrived at a solution that would maximize the number of families helping children, keeping valuable agencies like St. Vincent open while leaving plenty of options available to LGBTQ families. Religious agencies are required to refer any couples they cannot assist to agencies who can help. In Michigan, same-sex couples have many agency options, and can even adopt children in the care of religious agencies like St. Vincent if they have their licensing home study completed elsewhere. This system worked well, and Michigan saw an increase in children moving on to permanent homes after the law was passed in 2015.  

But four years later, Attorney General Dana Nessel made it a top priority to undo this compromise, creating a new policy that prohibits the state from working with agencies that won’t provide written endorsements of same-sex couples against their religious beliefs. Since the state is the one who decides which agencies can serve foster kids, Nessel’s new policy means that successful adoption agencies like St. Vincent may have to close.

The truth is, St. Vincent works tirelessly to ensure that the needs of every family who approaches them to adopt are met. The state of Michigan’s policy throws the baby out with the bathwater. Shutting down successful agencies like St. Vincent will undermine the prospects of every child in Michigan’s foster care system by reducing the number of agencies cooperating with the state to care for those children.

Opposing views on the nature of marriage need not have consequences for the foster care debate. In his majority opinion in the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes, “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.”

The unfortunate reality is that rather than open and searching debate, Michigan’s leadership is attempting to use the law to prove a political point, hurting children and families in the process. This doesn’t help children and families — it merely punishes agencies who don’t share the state’s views. In fact, closing down a successful agency like St. Vincent doesn’t make it any easier for same-sex couples to foster or adopt; it simply decreases the number of loving homes available to children in need. That’s why the Bucks and St. Vincent are in court this week asking Michigan to follow the law and let St. Vincent keep serving kids.

There is no evidence that any same-sex couple has been prevented from adopting because of St. Vincent’s religious policies. The state’s actions only hurt families like the Bucks. It threatens more separation of sibling groups, fewer homes for children with disabilities, and fewer forever homes for all foster children.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the foster care and adoption crisis. Instead, we need all hands on deck to support foster children and their families. I hope that Michigan will recognize this conflict for what it is — an unnecessary political dispute — and continue its successful partnership with agencies like St. Vincent that have successfully cared for children for decades.

Lori Windham is senior counsel at Becket and represents Melissa and Chad Buck and St. Vincent Catholic Charities.