Preserving the Adoption Option

An out of focus image of a family with young children.
Prixel Creative/Lightstock

As he nears the end of his term-limited service, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has three pieces of legislation on his office wall, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. Of these mementos, one holds special significance for him—legislation preserving the right of faith-based adoption agencies to follow their religious convictions while dealing with the state.

It's special because Meekhof was adopted through one of those agencies. In fact, he was the first of four children, all with different biological parents, to be adopted into that household.

"I'm 56 years old and I can still remember our
social worker from Bethany Christian Services, Mrs. Johnson, dropping by to see how we all were interacting," Meekhof tells Citizen. "We were always told that we got saved twice: Once by Jesus Christ, once by our parents. They were great, great parents who gave us great lives, and we're forever grateful for that."

Meekhof has a lot of company. He's among thousands who've been similarly blessed through the work of faith-based agencies across the country.

In some places, however—like Illinois, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia—those blessings have been lost. Agencies committed to placing children only with a married couple consisting of one man and one woman have run afoul of government policies and court rulings committed to gay activism. And in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling forcing all states to recognize same-sex marriage, many other states and cities likely will follow suit, either through the work of elected officials or unelected bureaucrats and judges.

So pro-family leaders in the Wolverine State decided they'd better act first.

"It became clear that what was happening in other states could happen here," says Brad Snavely, executive director of the Michigan Family Forum (MFF), the state's public-policy partner of Focus on the Family.

"You could see it coming. We were working for this legislation for two or three years before it passed in June 2015. We knew the stakes. The state has always struggled to find homes for these children. But it would really struggle if organizations like Bethany and Catholic Charities were forced to pull out—forced to choose between violating their principles and pursuing their work."

Snavely knows what he's talking about. MFF doesn't just deal with legislation: The group has been actively involved in promoting adoption for a long time.

In 2007, MFF and the state branch of Bethany Christian Services, which is the nation's largest faith-based adoption agency, launched Project Open Arms, using their network of church contacts to promote adoption. The groups focus their efforts on the hardest children to place—the older ones who will age out of the foster care system and be left to fend for themselves.

"We've been involved with this work from way back," Snavely says. "We understand the needs, the role of the faith-based adoption agencies and the churches that partner with them."

A Partnership That Works

Snavely has also seen what good can be done when state government eagerly reaches out to faith communities to help children find forever families.

That's what happened between 2011 and 2014, when Maura Corrigan served as director of the Michigan Department of Human Services. She established a Faith-Based Initiative with two full-time recruitment coordinators who work with local congregations to find both adoptive and foster parents for children in the foster care system. And she started an annual Faith-Based Summit on Foster Care and Adoption to strengthen those congregations' effectiveness and bolster their connections.

"Maura made adoption a big part of her agenda," Snavely says. "She did great things to lower the number of children waiting for a home. A big part of that was the faith-based community. I like to think the spark we all helped light a few years earlier led to some of the things she did."

Not all foster children are candidates for adoption, but more of those who are have found adoptive homes since Corrigan started, rising from 70 percent in 2011 to 86 percent in 2014. And churches and religious groups are a big part of the reason why, says Bob Wheaton, manager of communications for the now-renamed Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have more than 350 congregations that support our foster care and adoption efforts through the Faith-Based Initiative, and they've been extremely valuable partners," Wheaton tells Citizen. "Some members have stepped up to serve as foster or adoptive parents. Some have helped us recruit loving foster and adoptive families by networking both locally and with other faith
congregations. Many have provided support to our foster families by providing assistance with meals, transportation, clothing—all the things that benefit these vulnerable children and the families that are providing them with a place to call home."

Even before the state's Faith-Based Initiative, private faith-based agencies have long been major players in this field, accounting for roughly a third
of foster-care adoptions. The two largest—Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services—account for 25 to 30 percent.

"We have a strong track record of well over 100 years in Michigan," Tom Hickson, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Michigan Catholic Conference, tells Citizen. "The state came to us, asking us to partner with them to help kids. We have the networks to do that—to reach out to the people in the churches and find out if they're interested. They did the same with other denominations and agencies."

Bill Blacquiere (pronounced black-wire) can testify to that. And with extensive experience working both for the state (12 years with the Michigan Department of Special Services) and faith-based agencies (29 years at Bethany Christian Services, where he's now president and CEO of the global organization), he stresses the irreplaceable contributions of the latter groups.

"We bring a lot of resources for adoption and foster care because of our connections to churches and the Christian community," Blacquiere says. Some people aren't comfortable working strictly with the state or secular agencies, he explains, "but with us, they've got a trusted relationship."

'Our Time to Step Up'

Every bit of help these agencies can give is badly needed, with around 13,000 Michigan children in foster care in any given year—some of them waiting for family situations to be resolved as others await adoption.

"We need a diversity of agencies working on this," Snavely says. "We need more help, not less. We can't risk losing some of the most important ones."

That's what happened in Massachusetts in 2006, when the first state to recognize same-sex marriage decreed it would no longer work with foster care and adoption agencies that "discriminated" against placing children in homosexual households. The same thing happened, with minor variations, in the District of Columbia in 2010 and Illinois in 2011.

In those places, both Catholic and Protestant groups that wouldn't play ball were effectively forced to shut down their involvement with adoption and foster care.

Both MFF and Michigan's faith-based leaders were resolved: It wouldn't happen there—not if they could help it. And they found partners in the legislature who felt the same way.

For some, it was personal. Like Meekhof. And like Rep. Ken Kurtz (R-Coldwater), who, with his wife,
Diane, has cared for more than 20 foster children over the years—starting with one who, for them, truly was an unplanned child.

"It started about 35 years ago," Kurtz tells Citizen. "A colleague asked my wife and I to watch his youngest daughter for the weekend. He never came back for her. Instead, her brother and sister needed a place to stay also. The father just abandoned them."

The Kurtzes, who had two children of their own,
applied to become foster parents. And their hearts found room not only for their colleague's three children, but for many, many more.

"That led to the next child, and the next child," Kurtz says. "We just saw the need there was for these children living in tenuous times. It was our time to step up and do that."

Some three decades later, Kurtz—a funeral director who'd also spent eight years as a pastor with the United Brethren Church—found himself in a new role: Michigan state legislator, and chairman of the House Committee on Families, Children and Seniors. And now he could step up in a new way.

Starting in late 2012, Kurtz and other legislators introduced multiple bills (more than one was needed for technical reasons) recognizing the right of religious adoption and foster care agencies contracting with the state to follow their beliefs.

"We have a great diversity of both faith-based and secular agencies doing their job in this state," Kurtz says. "But we saw opposition (from gay activists and their allies) building. The faith-based agencies were
at risk."

Kurtz and his allies kept trying throughout 2013 and 2014. They got the bills through the House late in the session, but in the closing days, competing legislative priorities kept them from clearing the Senate.

Facing the end of his time in office due to term limits, Kurtz had hoped to finish the job before he left. "I was disappointed and hurt," he says. "I don't need my name on any legislation, but I really wanted to solidify protections to take care of children the best way possible."

Fortunately, there were others still in office who felt the same way.

Crossing the Finish Line

One of those legislators was Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus Township), a 28-year-old former waitress who, from early on, had worked alongside Kurtz for this legislation.

"Ken and I had been confident that we were going to get it over the finish line while he was still there, and we were both a little frustrated and deflated at the end of that year," she tells Citizen.

"He hoped the rest of us would carry those bills across the finish line without him.

"That was something I really wanted to do. All public policy is meaningful, but this set of bills was especially important—and, I thought, time-sensitive."

So on Feb. 12, 2015, LaFontaine and others—including Rep. Harvey Santana (D-Detroit) and Kurtz's successor, Eric Leutheiser (R-Hillsdale)—reintroduced and tweaked three measures, House Bills 4188-4190. And the lobbying began—from both sides of the issue.

Homosexual groups and their allies, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, complained the
bills were "anti-gay." That charge strikes fear into many politicians' hearts, but MFF and the faith-based agencies worked hard to counter it.

"As we met with lawmakers and made our case in hearings, it was very helpful to have people who are working with families every day," Snavely says. "They could talk about the work they do and the faith that compels them to do it. They showed their heart for kids and families, and came through in a very positive way."

So did the argument that the legislation didn't prevent same-sex couples from adopting children: It preserved the rights of faith-based agencies to do their work without joining in that practice.

"Obviously, we'd say what's optimal is a married mom and dad, and that's what we're shooting for," Snavely says. "Yet these bills didn't compel anyone to agree with that view, even though there's a sound basis for it. They just made sure those who hold that view could continue their work."

In June 2015, the legislation's final version passed both chambers by overwhelming margins: 26-12 in the Senate, 65-44 in the House.

And if there was any suspense left then, it didn't last long. Snyder added his signature the next day (June 11), making Michigan just the third state—in addition to Virginia and North Dakota—to specifically extend protections to faith-based agencies.

But hopefully not the last. Blacquiere reports Bethany is promoting similar laws in other states, including Georgia, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas.

"On a national level, there's something between 20,000 and 23,000 children that age out of the foster care system when they turn 18 or 19," he says. "We need all the resources we can get to make sure those kids have families."

In the meantime, the Michigan bills' backers are glad for what they've got. "This is an issue close to
my heart," says Meekhof. "No child should go without a loving home because of state regulations, and this legislation prevents just that from happening."

Says Kurtz, "It's truly a God thing that goes deep to the heart of who we are as a people: 'Suffer those little children to come unto Me.' "

As for Snavely, he's gratified not only with the law, but with the teamwork between everyone who got it through—the legislators, the faith-based groups and MFF.

"We don't want to just make noise and get our names in the paper," he says. "We all just want to get things done. And we did."

For More Information:

Focus on the Family works to help foster children nationwide find forever homes through its Wait No More initiative. Learn more about it, and how you can get involved, at icareaboutorphans.org. Learn more about the Michigan Family Forum at michiganfamily.org.

Originally published in the March, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.

© March 2016 Focus on the Family.