Pending SCOTUS decision will affect foster care in Philadelphia

by Barbara Sheehan
Posted 2/25/21

In a recent commentary for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they wrote that “suggesting that same-sex couples are unsuitable to care for children is not just hurtful to us, but it reinforces the worst ideas that many LGBTQ young people have about themselves — that they have less worth than other people.”

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Pending SCOTUS decision will affect foster care in Philadelphia


Shannon Graves and Paige Davis, of East Falls, were inspired to take in foster children after they saw a commercial in which the pop singer Cyndi Lauper shared a statistic that 40% of children and youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ. Lauper organized a benefit concert for the cause.

“As a same-sex couple, learning this fact changed our lives forever,” Graves and Davis said.

The couple became certified as foster parents in 2015 and has since fostered eight children and youth, ranging in age from infant to age 20.

In a recent commentary for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they wrote that “suggesting that same-sex couples are unsuitable to care for children is not just hurtful to us, but it reinforces the worst ideas that many LGBTQ young people have about themselves — that they have less worth than other people.”

That comment was made in reaction to a pending Supreme Court case that Graves and Davis believe could dissuade couples like them from fostering children. Oral arguments for that case, “Fulton v. City of Philadelphia,” were heard in November. It was brought by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on behalf of Sharonell Fulton, a foster parent who has been certified and trained through Catholic Social Services (CSS), under a contract with the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.

After a 2018 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the CSS’s exclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the certification of foster parents, the City declined to renew its contract for those services. The City, however, continued to fund CSS for up to $26 million a year for other service to Philadelphia children in foster care.

A question of religious liberty

Lawyers for the Archdiocese argued that as a religious organization, CSS cannot be asked to certify a same sex couple as prospective parents because to do so violates its religious beliefs.

They argued that this exclusion does not hurt any LGBTQ individuals seeking to become foster parents, since none have applied to CSS, and there are up to 28 other agencies that will accept and certify same sex couples. That list includes one agency, Bethany Christian Services, which changed its policies and agreed to follow the terms of the City contract.

CSS’s lead counsel is Lori Windham, Esq, an attorney with Becket Law in Washington, D.C., a non-profit, public-interest firm that takes on cases advocating free expression of religion.

Windham argued that the City’s refusal to renew its contract prevents CSS from partnering with parents like Sharonell Fulton, who has fostered 40 children through the service. Windham said the exclusion of CSS from the City program is a violation Fulton’s first amendment rights.

Although officials at Becket Law would not permit an interview with Fulton, they provided pre-recorded video interviews for review.

In the videotaped interviews, Fulton praised Catholic Social Services. Although she could apply to be certified through one of the other foster care agencies in the city, Fulton said, “It is essential for a foster parent to work with an agency of their choice.” A religious person, she feels, “should have the freedom to work with the agency that they want to work with to continue the values of their faith.”

Graves and Davies, the couple from East Falls, are active with Philadelphia Family Pride (PFP), a non-profit membership organization for LGBTQ+ families in the Philadelphia area, which is an intervenor in the case. PFP supports Philadelphia’s requirement that contracted foster care agencies include all qualified parents, including same sex couples.

Stephanie Haynes, PFP’s executive director, said she is worried that a ruling in favor of CSS would deter qualified individuals from attempting or completing the lengthy foster parent licensing process.

“If prospective LGBTQ foster parents left one of our foster parent recruitment events, contacted an agency in their neighborhood, and then were turned away because of their sexual orientation, that sting of rejection could be enough to keep them from making a second or third call,” Haynes said.

Broader Impacts

Mary Rohmiller, Esq., Co-Director of State Policy and Policy Counsel for Family Equity, a New York-based advocacy organization, worries about the broader impacts of the decision.

“A ruling from the Court that governments cannot enforce contract or grant requirements when private contractors claim a religious objection could drastically impact a broad range of social services,” Rohmiller said. Taxpayer dollars designated for vital public services such as job training programs, food assistance and emergency shelters, could exclude people who do not meet a contracting agency’s religious criteria.”

Adoptive parents

Many foster care agencies handle certification for prospective adoptive parents as well. If agencies are able to dictate who the will work with as foster parents, advocates for LGBTQ adoptive parents are concerned they might make the same decisions when it comes to adoption.

Alex Macnow, 34, and Nathan Renner-Johnson, 32, of Media, made the decision to adopt an infant in January of 2019. They interviewed several agencies and decided they wanted a private, open adoption, in the U.S. The process was lengthy, involving national and state background checks and home visits to see if they were stable and could provide for the child financially. By the end of that summer, they began to look at listings in order to find a match with a birth mother.

A match was made with a mother in Oklahoma City in April 2020. Although the due date was May 14, unexpected circumstances moved the date up by a few weeks.  Macnow and Renner-Johnson loaded up their car with baby supplies and toiletries and drove to Oklahoma to be there for the birth.

There were many delays; courts in both Oklahoma and Pennsylvania had to approve the adoption, and due to the pandemic, courts were closed. In addition, since the baby is partly of Native American descent, approval also had to be acquired from the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribal Nation.

They stayed in an Air BnBs in Oklahoma for five weeks as a result.

The couple agreed that the process was stressful.  Renner-Johnson also noted “There is a weird dissonance about adoption. For us it is a really happy time because we are building our family, but for the birth mother it isn’t the same happy feeling.”

Macnow and Renner-Johnson are worried a decision in the CSS case could have a negative impact on adoptive parents like them.

 “It’s the emotional perception, the precedent,” Renner –Johnson said. “You are saying that gay families are not valid and not eligible.”

 “It makes the process that much more difficult.” Macnow added. “I think it is a slippery slope—if they say that LGBTQ family is not valid, is a Jewish family not a valid family, is the Muslim family not a valid family?”

The Supreme Court expects to rule on Fulton v. City of Philadelphia by June of 2021.


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