Texas Politics

Some 20,000 Texas kids need homes. But will a new law turn families away?

Couple fear new Texas law

Franklin, a transgender man, and his wife Amy dream of being foster parents, and they may leave Texas because of House Bill 3859.
Up Next
Franklin, a transgender man, and his wife Amy dream of being foster parents, and they may leave Texas because of House Bill 3859.

Franklin and Amy Countryman dream of someday serving as foster parents to children who need homes — and possibly adopting a child or two.

But the Mansfield newlyweds fear a new Texas law geared to let child welfare service providers deny children to Texans based on a provider’s “sincerely held religious beliefs” could make their quest harder.

At issue: Many adoption agencies are faith-based and likely will oppose the couple’s move to be foster parents because Franklin is transgender. And the new law that goes into effect Sept. 1 would allow that.

“Given the political climate, there’s not much hope that [the law] gives me,” said Countryman, a 36-year-old adjunct professor at Tarrant County College. “This has changed our goals. Earlier, when I’d go online to look for jobs, the priority was to stay in Texas, preferably the DFW area.

“Now, it’s anywhere. If I find a job, [Amy] is willing to go anywhere now because of this law,” he said. “This is a climate that doesn’t fit our goals for our family or our life structure.”

This is one of the latest concerns to arise because of House Bill 3859, geared to protect “the rights of conscience” for child welfare services providers. California already has banned state-funded travel here because of the legislation.

Supporters say the measure doesn’t discriminate, because anyone turned away must be given a referral to another agency. They say it simply safeguards the religious freedom of adoption agencies and providers of foster care, protecting them from lawsuits if they choose not to work with certain people.

Critics say it lets agencies use religion as a weapon when they reject Texans for reasons ranging from religion to sexuality. And they worry that many Texas agencies base at least part of their decisions on religious convictions.

All this comes as more than 20,000 Texas youth — 3,841 up for adoption and an additional 16,518 in the foster care system — need homes and families to love them, according to the most recent Texas Department of Family and Protective Services records.

These children have been abandoned, neglected, taken out of their homes because of neglect or abuse or their parents have terminated their rights to them.

The “Freedom to Serve Children Act” states that “reasonable accommodations” should be made to “allow people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to be a part of meeting the needs of children in the child welfare system.” It also says private and state-funded agencies can’t be discriminated against for rejecting people based on “the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The bill says those caring for children can dictate their religious education and prevent access to contraception or abortion services.

“Nothing has changed,” said Randy Daniels, who helped with the legislation and serves as vice president of program development for Buckner Children & Family Services, a Dallas-based, Baptist-affiliated agency. “But it protects our rights to participate in providing child welfare services.”

‘Our kids ... are in a crisis’

Daniels said the soon-to-be law is about participation, not discrimination

And he said it’s needed to protect agencies and let them stand by their religious beliefs without fear of retaliation.

In recent years, Daniels said he’s seen faith-based agencies in other states required to provide foster or adoption services to same-sex families, which he called “a clear violation of their beliefs.” If they didn’t comply, they were prevented from providing adoption or foster care services.

Not only that, he said, but at least one agency in another state was sued for not providing abortion-related services for children and ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the case.

“Agencies like ours are so dependent on donor dollars that we can’t spend money like that,” Daniels said. “We saw a move around the country to exclude faith-based groups from doing things we’ve done for hundreds of years.”

So he and others asked lawmakers for the measure to protect their agencies and their beliefs.

Our kids, our children in Texas, are in a crisis.

Randy Daniels, who helped with the Texas law and is vice president of program development for Buckner Children & Family Services

“Our kids, our children in Texas, are in a crisis,” Daniels said. “We need to keep the organizations and agencies that provide good quality foster care and adoption at the table. Our kids deserve it and they need it.”

The new law — which echoes sentiments in last year’s Texas Republican Party platform — “provides conscience protection for faith-based providers who cannot abandon the tenets of the very faith that compels them to assist children in Texas’ foster care system,” according to an article written by Daniels and Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Fort Worth.

“The bill requires DFPS to provide alternative providers in every region,” the article states. “It also requires any agency which cannot serve a family or a child because of sincerely held religious beliefs to refer them back to DFPS. No one will be denied the ability to serve these children, as long as they are properly vetted by the state.”

At Buckner, for instance, Daniels said, there’s a certain criteria for families the agency works with; the agency chooses not to work with same-sex families.

But it interviews prospective parents to determine whether there’s a good match between them and the agency.

“When we agree we are going to work together, it’s a huge commitment,” he said. “If there’s not a match, we refer them to other agencies for whatever the reason.”

The Fort Worth-based Gladney Center for Adoption, one of the nation’s oldest adoption agencies, is not defined as a faith-based organization — although it works with faith-based groups — and likely would be among those receiving referrals.

“We want to ensure we have the right to do what we’ve been doing for 138 years,” Daniels said. “It’s not political.”

Economic train wreck?

California has weighed in, with its decision to ban state-funded travel to Texas because of the measure.

Officials in the Golden State issued the ban on eight states — Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas — saying new laws in those areas discriminate against transgender and gay people.

“We will not spend taxpayer dollars in states that discriminate,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced recently.

The restrictions do apply to state schools, but officials aren’t sure whether that means athletic teams that use non-state money for travel to other states would be impacted.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Ron T. Ennis

“California may be able to stop their state employees, but they can’t stop all the businesses that are fleeing over taxation and regulation and relocating to Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott’s press secretary, John Wittman, has told the media.

Some say the California travel ban is just the beginning of a backlash headed toward Texas, especially if state lawmakers pass, during the upcoming special session, a bill addressing where transgender Texans may use the restroom, said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.

“We’re watching a slow-motion economic train wreck here, and the special session could turn that into a full-on disaster,” Miller said in a written statement. “This goes beyond the very real moral problem with discriminating against people simply because of who they are or whom they love.

“What should be increasingly clear even to the governor and lieutenant governor is that their obsession with writing discrimination into law risks turning Texas into a state that people and companies simply don’t want to visit or do business in.”

‘They are going to ask us questions’

As politicians argue about the issue, some Texans worry how the law will impact their families.

Maria and her husband, Michael, a Cleburne couple who have a biological child but want to add to their family, are exploring adoption in Texas. But they are concerned about their chances because Michael is an atheist and she identifies as Jewish/Buddhist.

They’ve been told they have to go through an agency to adopt. And they see that many of the agencies on a network provider list they were given — including the Texas Baptist Home for Children, Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services, Faithworks, Inc., Buckner, Amazing Grace Child and Family Services — have religious ties.

“I have a big problem with [rules that say] who can adopt a child based on sexual orientation or religion,” said Maria, who spoke on the condition of not using her last name because she’s concerned thawt speaking out about the law could impact her chances of adopting a child in Texas.

If I put it on our paperwork, and we get to the point where someone says we’re not really religious, do we get shuffled to the bottom to the stack?

Maria, a Cleburne woman who spoke on the condition of not using her last name because she’s concerned that speaking out about the law could impact her chances of adopting a child in Texas

“They are going to ask us questions,” she said. “If I put it on our paperwork, and we get to the point where someone says we’re not really religious, do we get shuffled to the bottom to the stack? Or because I consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ people, am I going to be labeled a damn Yankee?”

Erika Young, a 40-year-old Arlington mother of two adopted children, said she supports everyone’s right to adopt.

She understands challenges some couples face. In her case, when she and her husband first looked into adoption, they were more concerned that his age — 43 at the time, 50 now — could put them out of the running than the fact that she’s Caucasian and her husband is African-American.

But she can see that each adoption agency has the right to choose whom they serve.

“I would not want a company to be forced to do something different,” Young said. “You should not force an agency to go against something they believe.”

She stressed that she supports lesbian and gay adoptions.

“I think there’s enough children in the world that we shouldn’t fight over the babies,” she said. “But if there’s a company that has a purpose and calling, you can’t change them and make them do something different.”

Looking ahead

Franklin Countryman said he isn’t trying to change anyone.

He and Amy, who have been married about half a year, are just looking at their future.

The two dated almost four years before getting engaged. And before getting married last year, Franklin legally changed his name and driver’s license to reflect that he is male, rather than female, as he was at birth.

He’s concerned, though, that when they are ready to move forward with becoming foster parents, any agency they work with will find out about his dual identities — one male, one female — and decide not to work with them.

It may be awhile before they are ready to formally pursue being foster parents. First they want to be more financially secure and have a more stable schedule.

But it’s something that’s coming. And they hope it’s sooner rather than later.

It’s very sad [Texas] can’t be more inclusive.

Franklin Countryman, a transgender Mansfield man concerned about his chance of fostering or adopting children

“That’s where our hearts are, fostering,” Countryman said. “But there are a lot of concerns.

“It’s very sad [Texas] can’t be more inclusive.”

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley