Opinion Extra

Op-ed: Closing faith-based foster care agencies hurts children who need help

State Sen. William Timmons, left, speaks at a debate Monday night while Lee Bright, far right, listens. Timmons and Bright are competing in next week's Republican runoff for South Carolina's 4th Congressional District seat.
State Sen. William Timmons, left, speaks at a debate Monday night while Lee Bright, far right, listens. Timmons and Bright are competing in next week's Republican runoff for South Carolina's 4th Congressional District seat. Anderson Independent Mail

South Carolina needs more foster homes. Homes as diverse as the children in need of them. More than 4,000 of South Carolina’s children are in foster care, and we need more than 1,500 new South Carolina families to provide them all with loving homes. This need is not new, and neither is the identity of those who have kept the crisis from being far worse. From before the founding of our Republic, private citizens, charities, and religious organizations have played a leading role serving needy foster children. Their service is even more desperately needed today.

Despite the overwhelming need to have all hands on deck, and despite the lengthy history of governmental reliance on and support of faith-based foster care providers, some cities and states have made the astonishing decision to shut down their largest, oldest, and most successful foster agencies and homes. Philadelphia, for example, recently closed Catholic Social Services and rejected the help of the agency’s award-winning foster parents. New York and Michigan recently kicked out multiple faith-based foster agencies. Their reasoning? The shuttered agencies, whose service was rooted in their faith, partnered with or certified only parents who shared or reflected their beliefs, and they politely referred other potential foster parents to nearby agencies who would gladly work with them. No foster parent had ever been prevented from fostering by the targeted agencies, and thousands of foster parents had been recruited and supported by them. The results are tragic: fewer homes for children in desperate need.

William Timmons

South Carolina has taken a better approach. When an Obama-era federal regulation threatened to shut down the decades-old foster care ministry of Miracle Hill Ministries—a faith-based provider located in upstate South Carolina—Gov. Henry McMaster acted quickly to protect foster children and families. He issued an Executive Order to protect religious ministries, and, with the help of our congressional delegation, secured guidance from the federal government that a mere regulation did not and could not infringe on the ministries’ constitutional and statutory rights.

The Executive Order and the federal guidance protecting the ministries are required by the Constitution, by state and federal law, and by binding case law. They also just make sense. Contrary to the claims made in lawsuits orchestrated by out-of-state interest groups and repeated in the press, protecting religious providers doesn’t prevent anyone from becoming a foster parent. As Michigan, Philadelphia, and New York have shown, the exact opposite is true. There, politicians have put politics ahead of the needs of kids, shrinking the pool of helpers. But in South Carolina, any qualified person or couple can become a foster parent, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. And when a ministry like Miracle Hill cannot partner with them, multiple other private and state agencies gladly assist in licensing and placing children with qualified parents.

Experience shows that allowing faith-based providers to help doesn’t shrink the number of foster homes. Rather, it expands the number of available homes. No qualified person is prevented from fostering. And at the same time, faith-based groups are able to leverage their deep and special relationships within their faith community to recruit and support foster parents who share their religious mission. This expansive effect has been proven both anecdotally in the Upstate and empirically in studies. The net effect? More homes for more children in need.

Miracle Hill’s foster care ministry is desperately needed. The services of the 10 other foster care agencies in Greenville are desperately needed. And new foster parents are desperately needed, whether they’re gay or straight, black or white, of any faith or of no faith at all. And all are welcome, including faith-based agencies, who should be both free to foster and free to believe.

U.S. Rep. William Timmons, a Republican, represents South Carolina’s 4th Congressional District.