Any other good news?

Why delegate public power over adoption and foster placement to religious organizations?

The Catholic Charities organizations in the Rockford, Joliet, and Peoria dioceses have announced that they will stop certifying foster and adoptive parents because of a new Illinois law granting equal rights to gay and lesbian couples. Excellent!

The practice of giving not only public money but public authority to religious groups far pre-dates George W. Bush’s efforts to use your dollars to pay off his fundamentalist pastor friends though the “faith-based initiative” racket. Most of the people helped by the network of organizations known as “Catholic Charities” think their gratitude is due to the Catholic Church; in fact, two-thirds of the actual money comes from public funds.

That’s bad enough, given the openly partisan stance of the contemporary Catholic church and its ongoing campaign to deny equal rights to gays and lesbians. What’s worse is that Catholic Charities, and parallel organizations organized by other denominations, continue to dominate the business of adoption and foster care, wielding by delegation the state’s power to determine who may care for children whose parents can’t.

The practice is a hold-over from the days when children were considered the property of their parents’ denominations, so that the child of a Protestant couple was a “Protestant” child, and could therefore only be placed in a Protestant home. (Somehow this was never as controversial as the parallel claim that African-American children should be placed with parents of their own race.) Allowing the clergy to license adoptive couples means subjecting prospective adoptive parents to whatever narrow-mindedness the pastors wanted to enforce that week. Catholic Charities allows single parents, but not unmarried couples, to become foster and adoptive parents. That may be good church doctrine, but if there’s any actual evidence that single people outperform unmarried couples in raising children I’m not aware of it, and it seems to me that ought to be the decisive question. At one time Catholic couples practicing any method of birth control other than “Vatican roulette” were also barred, but I think – can’t find a source on it – that rule has been allowed to fall into disuse.

“In-sourcing” this bit of public power to actual public officials, accountable to actual elected legislators and elected chief executives, seems like a long-overdue reform.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Any other good news?”

  1. MK: “In-sourcing” this bit of public power to actual public officials, accountable to actual elected legislators and elected chief executives, seems like a long-overdue reform.

    Let me be the troll of the day: like that’s worked out so well in other spheres

    There were other, deeper more legitimate reasons than distinguishing “Protestant” children from “Catholic” children, to involve religious authorities in matters of adoption and foster care. Driven as we are in these dark, neo-liberal days by for-profit everything, we can forget that in many, many areas (including most nominally for-profit activities) of political and economic life, the scarcest resource is judgement founded on actually caring about the outcome.

    We can prattle on about aligning incentives or some ideal of public choice, but the reality is things are very complicated, and there’s no substitute in the grand feedback loop between action and results, for subjective judgment — “good taste” in some circumstances; expertise, in technical matters; deep committment to moral principle, in others.

    Catholic charities assumed the role they have, because people — including non-Catholics — sensed a personal, religious, communitarian committment, which could be relied upon to navigate through the complex fog of messy reality toward better, less corrupt results.

    Religion has lost its hold, for better or worse. Principle, in general, has lost its hold, as we could see if we examined the secular principles in action of any profession. It may be that it was always pretence, to an extent we don’t like to admit — unrealistic ideals combined with taboo and denial, covering for some very ugly neglect and exploitation.

    In this case, though, I think the basic principle of committment, solidarity and communitarian values, that led Catholic Charities to claim jurisdiction to care for “Catholic” children should lead to Gay and Lesbian charities caring for “gay” children.

    It might seem a bit strained in concept, and probably would be often curious in practice, but it makes more sense than relying on bureaucracies of depressed, overworked Social Workers, who have proven, in many States, to be worse than useless. And, that’s what assigning nominal responsibility to politicians amounts to.

  2. I’m sure that legions of secular folk, deeply motivated by the plight of children who are orphaned or otherwise without stable parents, will rush into low paid work as adoption placement professionals for state governments. And I’m sure that state governments, flush as they all are with cash these days, will find it easy to fund the construction of the massive administrative and organizational structures* needed to pick up the slack in adoption placements caused by the flight of religious groups who can no longer in good conscience play by the state’s rules.

    Look, I disagree that the state of Illinois is doing the right thing here, but at least I could deeply respect someone who says “its a tragedy and a disaster that Catholic Charities and other religious groups are pulling out of the adoption business, but this is a matter of the principle of equal rights are so it has to be.”

    But to suggest that its a “good thing” that much of the existing infrastructure of adoption placement will be dismantled because now – joy of joys – the State of Illinois can now manage things directly is crazy beyond comprehension. Do you have any idea of what Illinois’s track record in the last few deciades looks like in executing the responsibilities it does have direct control over?

    Even if – best case scenario – the state of Illinois were able to replicate the infrastructure, placement success and cost structure of Catholic charities within the next five years, exactly how many kids will suffer greatly while the state gets its act together?

    Again, I think the state is wrong here. But if the state had said “we’re going to stop funding adoption placement agencies that refuse to place children with gay and lesbian couple as of January 1 2017,” then at least there would be time for some kind of replacement for the services provided by Catholic Charities to be stood up. Hell, the specific local Catholic Charities affiliates referenced in the news story you linked only want an exemption allowing them to refer gay and lesbian couples to any of the dozens of agencies that will place children with them. But no real-wrold consideration is to be entertained when Progress ™ is on the march.

    * Yes, I understand that a large measure of Catholic Charities’ cash operating budgets are funded by the state. But they’re not completely funded by the state, and besides to run any kind of social services agency you don’t just need this year’s cash operating funds, you need facilities and other capital resources, not to mention a stable organization, trained and experienced workers, institutional learning and in this case, relationships with sources of prospective adoptive parents. If for whatever obscure reason of principle someone decided that it was improper for the state of California to fund UCLA, but that that’s OK because the state can step in and take over the provision of “higher education services” on the west side of Los Angeles directly, you would, I suspect call them crazy. Because you simply cannot replace a working institution overnight, regardless of where that institutions gets its funds from.

  3. @Bruce Wilder and sd,


    I accept that one cannot create social infrastructure overnight. Even so, the question is, why is the happiness of innocent children made subject to the approval of a vicious and contemptible cult?

    Historically, yes, Catholic Charities (and its non-RC counterparts) have received lots of state money. They have done so because it has been convenient to the state to outsource its responsibilities where possible. But why must this continue, especially when the religious bodies involved impose conditions that are repugnant to decency?

    Let me be clear: I don’t blame the religioius bodies. Given the opportunity to suck on the taxpayers’ teat, they’d be irrational not to do so. I blame the state for abdicating its responsibilities to horrible institutions.

  4. SD: And of course the politicians the Catholic Church supports are working hard to keep public employees underpaid and the states bankrupt. Pretty nice arrangement, no?

  5. As to whether the state is “doing the right thing”: did we suddenly develop a surplus of foster parents, so we can afford to throw willing volunteers away in order to comply with some poorly-understood verses in the Book of Leviticus? Why should the welfare of those children be held hostage to the bigotry of a particular public contractor?

  6. @Mark Kleiman

    “And of course the politicians the Catholic Church supports are working hard to keep public employees underpaid and the states bankrupt. Pretty nice arrangement, no?”

    In the past 2 weeks I have seen in the comment threads to posts on “conservative” websites numerous bitter, bigoted denunciations of the “left wing” U.S. Catholic bishops because of their open support for measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions (can’t remember the exact site) and to provide a path to citizenship and the full support of the social safety net to undocumented immigrants (The Corner at the National Review).

    The general consensus of the comments, which made use of rhetoric that would have been right at home in the screeds of late 19th century and early 20th century anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant know-nothingism, being that the bishops should butt out of politics and stick to religious matters. I can recall similar noise coming from the political right when the Vatican came out strongly in opposition to the war in Iraq, and I’m told that the same flavors of commentary were widespread in the 1960s when the Church spoke out strongly against segregation.

    The fact that off-the-rails conservatives can claim that the Church is a tool of the liberal left, while off-the-rails liberals claim that the Church is a tool of the conservative right, is a sign of the fundamental health of the Chruch’s preaching of the gospel, which wasn’t designed to make anyone especially comfortable in their worldly suppositions and which has been the thorn in the side of states of every stripe for centuries.

    An excellent case study is provided by the recent debate over Obamacare, in which the US Catholic Bishops pissed off close to 100% of American liberals in refusing to support the bill because it contained insufficient safeguards against public money being used for abortion. The irony of course being that had the Stupak crowd prevailed then the same US Conference of Catholic bishops would have pissed off close to 100% of American conservatives in turning right around and advocating forcefully for the bill.

  7. How did pushing all those religious hospitals to go private in the last thirty years work out? I would suggest “not well”.

  8. Sebastian Holsclaw says:

    “How did pushing all those religious hospitals to go private in the last thirty years work out? I would suggest “not well”.”


  9. Good points by many, but for once I agree with Mark – Government funds need not be dispensed to private agencies, whether religious, political, artisitic, environmental, educational!, etc. Of course, I’m not really sure he would agree with that prescription. He and the rest of the elites just want to choose which ones government should support.

  10. In 1972 my ex-husband and I adopted a baby boy from Catholic Charities in Chicago Il. That almost 39 year old man is gay with a wonderful partner. I wonder how many other children that were adopted from any religious agency turned out to be gay?

  11. Catholic Charities stopped facilitating adoptions in Massachusetts several years ago and in most jurisdictions it is rarely the only non-profit agency that helps facilitate adoptions. Indeed, it is important to realize the role that these agencies play, and why CC won’t do it any longer — and that is, they have to commit to abide by state imposed requirements. In this case, the state imposed requirements that the Catholic Church will not permit Catholic Charities to abide by. Catholic Charities itself, as a stand alone organization, would probably be just as happy to continue — most people who work for Catholic Charities are not themselves Catholic (this is actually true), and most of its funds come from public sources, and even its private funding is often not attached to its Catholic identity. This de facto departure from being a voluntary church organization has led to some states (California) refusing to acknowledge its status as a “church” for purposes of exempting it from certain types of rules, like the coverage of contraception in insurance policies. This was litigated and the state won.

    In the inside baseball edition, this is evidence that the Catholic Church is trying to rein in Catholic Charities, which many orthodox Catholics think has been off the reservation for too long. Not that this should matter to Mark or anyone else, I just think it is important that you not automatically ascribe all the “bad stuff” you associate with the Catholic Church to Catholic Charities, although the Church is doing its level best to see that, indeed, Catholic Charites does embody that bad stuff. This is just one of the many reasons why I am an ex-Catholic.

  12. The world has changed. Catholic Charities hasn’t. (Or if it has, it’s changed in the wrong direction.) Why is it, in a world where individuals are expected to remold themselves according to changing economic and demographic conditions on a regular basis, large corporate entities so often get an implicit pass?

  13. I’m sure the Catholic Church has no problem accepting monetary or proprietal donations from gays and lesbians though.

    They do have gay parishoners afterall.

    Even more ironic is that this comes from a religion which for decades (if not centuries) covered up and protected priests that were known sex criminals.

  14. Adoption issues are not fostercare issues. The Catholic Church got involved in adoption issues a long time ago when its own rules and restrictions on humane treatment of sexuality, pregnancy, and out of wedlock births produced a huge crop of “problem” children without families. When adoption was private the problem children of Catholic women were taken from them and placed directly, and often secretly, with other Catholic families with little or no state intervention. Thanks to a rise in the use of birth control, abortion, and single parenting (including public programs to help teenage mothers keep their children and continue with school) there are, in fact, very few abandoned and unwanted children who need placement. There are, however, lots of kids who move in and out of the foster care system because one or both parents have been declared unfit or because the difficulty of the child’s medical conditions makes it impossible for the biological parents to fully care for them. What the Catholic Church has to do with those kids is beyond me.

    As for those who think that the Catholic Church and its charitable arms are able to do a whole lot of charity for little or no money that is to seriously misunderstand how the Catholic Church works these days. The old days of underpaid Priests and Nuns has vanished. There are almost no Nuns left and the Church is rapidly reneging on its even minimal promises of retirement support. Where is this workforce of (variously) cheap labor, scabs, or charitable volunteers and what relevance does it have to the foster care/adoption system? Most of the people involved in Catholic Charities (to distinguish it from the Church) were not actually members of religious orders. They were simply paid workers–whether they are high paid or low paid isn’t the result of their religious convictions but rather of the fact that they are working for a non unionized corporation (the Church).

    I’d also like to point out that in Boston, my hometown, Catholic Charities wanted to keep working to place kids with foster and adoptive families whether gay or straight. It was the Bishops and the Church hierarchy in a form of cruel brinksmanship that decided to stop doing the work. They didn’t intend for the ban to be permanent, they just thought they could blackmail the state into suspending its laws and statutes for the Church’s benefit. Any way you look at it the entire move was merely blackmail enabling a corporation (the Church) to continue to receive taxpayer money without treating all taxpayers and citizens (gay children, gay families) equally.


  15. While the history of the CC getting into the adoption business is interesting, it no longer is applicable. What is important is that the interests of the kids involved be paramount, and in this case, the CC has decided that its dogma trumps caring about the kids. Sure, they’re going to claim that not allowing gay or lesbian couples to adopt is “caring about the kids,” but they know that is absolutely false. Single sex couples have as good a record of raising kids as heterosexual couples, and the CC is well aware of this.

    The argument that the CC is somehow uniquely able to do the placement because of their experience, buildings, etc. sort of begs the point that if the CC goes out of the adoption business, those people will be looking for someone else to work for. So you still have the same people able to do the job, just for someone else. And there are adoption agencies more than willing to disregard irrelevant details such as the parents’ sexual orientation. I remember seeing an interview where Pat Robertson was castigating a gay couple that had adopted a baby girl. He stated that he knew hundreds of good Christians who would be glad to adopt that girl. During the question/answer part, the receptionist for the adoption agency involved called in and asked where all these “good Christian families” were because they still had 29 kids looking for families. Robertson didn’t have a response.

    A religious fanatic is anyone who puts their own religious dogma ahead of human welfare, and the old phrase about “people may suffer, but the Church goes on” can’t be any more true than this instance.

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