Anti-Gay Discrimination Hard To Prove In Foster Care Arena

Feb 8, 2012

Wednesday, the Washington state House is expected to send a gay marriage bill to the governor. The final measure will likely contain some special language to address a concern raised by faith-based foster and adoption agencies. These state contractors don’t want to be forced to place children with gay couples. But Washington law already prohibits them from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. So how does that work now? As Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins found out, it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

When the Washington state Senate recently debated gay marriage,

President of Senate: “Amendment number 7, the Secretary will read.”

Democratic Senator Mary Margaret Haugen rose to offer an amendment to the bill. It reiterated that nothing in the same-sex marriage law would change how faith-based foster and adoption agencies operate in Washington.

Haugen: “There are many of these organizations that would close their doors rather than compromise their religious belief. And you know what, that would hurt the children.”

Haugen’s amendment was quickly approved. And that was good news at the Catholic Archdiocese in Seattle. It runs a child placement program through Catholic Community Service. Greg Magnoni is spokesman.

Magnoni: “With respect to the services we provide, we’re not going to violate our conscience. But we do want to keep working to continue this ministry of service in the areas of adoption and foster care.”

In fact, in other states the Catholic Church has cancelled its child placement contracts rather than serve gay couples. Magnoni says with the Senate amendment, he’s confident that won’t happen in Washington. So what is the policy of the Seattle Archdiocese today?

Magnoni: “We believe that the best place for any child is with a married couple and so up to now we’ve only placed children with married couples, almost without exception.”

Magnoni says if an unmarried person or couple showed up, they’d be referred to another agency. Same with a married gay couple - if that were to happen. But here’s the thing: Washington’s anti-discrimination law clearly states you can’t discriminate based on marital status. And as of 2006, it also says you can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation. Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services doesn’t ask its child placement contractors if they’re willing to work with gay people. But spokeswoman Sherry Hill says – if the agency gets taxpayer money – it must uphold federal and state law.

Hill: “We point that out right in the contract, non-discrimination laws and regulations.”

When I called around to the faith-based agencies with state contracts some – like Lutheran Services – offered a very clear non-discrimination statement. Others though were more vague. Most of them, like Catholic Community Services, told me that if a gay couple showed up at the door, they would likely be referred to another agency. In reality, most gay couples don’t call a placement agency randomly.

Wing-Kovarik: “We were given a list of the agencies that would be open to work with us and those were the agencies that we talked to.”

David Wing-Kovarik is recalling the process of adopting two foster children with his partner. Today, he runs a non-profit called Families Like Ours that helps prospective parents navigate the system.

Austin Jenkins: “Do you think that there’s discrimination happening by some of these state contractors against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender individuals and couples?”

Wing-Kovarik: “Yes.”

Austin Jenkins: “No doubt about it?”

Wing-Kovarik: “No doubt about it. Absolutely there is.”

Wing-Kovarik doesn’t like it, but ...

Wing-Kovarik: “If they’re properly referring without any kind of animosity, without quoting scripture to the person that calls in, ya, I can live with that.”

Because, he says, most adoptive parents want to work with agencies that want to work with them. Referrals by themselves are not illegal. Anne Levinson is a retired judge, leader in the gay rights movement in Washington and an expert on the foster care system. She says the key in the law is what’s motivating the referral.

Levinson: “It’s okay to give advice that a certain agency has a great background or relationships or expertise with a particular type of child or particular type of family and it’s okay to help ensure that prospective parent gets those services, it’s not okay to do that for discriminatory purposes.”

And therein lies the Catch-22. How do you know? No gay couples have logged complaints with Washington’s Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination by a child-placement agency. Nor have they complained to the Department of Social and Health Services. And the agency’s Thomas Shapley says his staff is in the business of finding homes for kids, not running sting operations to ferret out discrimination as is done sometimes in the housing world.

Shapley: “I’m not expressing any lack of concern for people who would like to be adoptive or foster parents, but our goal and our mission and our obligation under the law and everything else is the welfare of the kids.”

You hear that refrain over and over again from people in the foster and adoption business – on both sides of the gay rights issue. That it’s about the kids. And what they need is access to an array of placement agencies – all with different specialties. And no one seems to want that to change that even if Washington legalizes gay marriage.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network