DCFS, Catholic Charities in a fight affecting kids’ lives

Ties between the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and foster care provider Catholic Charities are shaky after the state child welfare agency refused to renew several of Catholic Charities’ contracts. The contracts affected the Catholic

Ties between the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and foster care provider Catholic Charities are shaky after the state child welfare agency refused to renew several of Catholic Charities’ contracts. The contracts affected the Catholic Charities of Peoria, Springfield and Joliet.

DCFS accuses Catholic Charities of not complying with a new state law that, among other protections, allows same-sex couples to adopt children.

DCFS Director Erwin McEwen said in a letter to Catholic Charities dated Friday, that was e-mailed to the Defender by a Catholic Charities spokesman, “…your agency has made it clear that it does not intend to comply with the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. That law applies to foster care and adoption services.”

The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this year, provides “persons entering into a civil union with the obligations, responsibilities, protections, and benefits afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses.”

The letter was addressed to Patricia Fox, CEO of Catholic Charities, and stated plainly that the state agency would not renew the contract between the parties.

But Catholic Charities fired back and filed for an emergency injunction and temporary restraining order against the DCFS decision. Tuesday, Catholic Charities prevailed in court – for now. llinois Judge John Schmidt granted the three Catholic Charities chapters a preliminary injunction, allowing them to continue their service to the children under their care for foster care and adoptions. The next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17

Catholic Charities looks forward to the opportunity to continue as a foster care provider for DCFS while staying committed to its religious values. Section 15 of the Act states that nothing in its text “shall interfere with or regulate the religious practices of any religious body.”

“Catholic Charities should be able to continue what they’re doing working with the state and part of the principle is that if someone is in a civil union and they do want to adopt, catholic charities is not their only choice,” Tom Ciesielka, a representative for the Thomas Moore Society, a non-profit law firm providing the legal representation for the Peoria, Joliet, and Springfield Catholic Charities dioceses, told the Defender before Tuesday’s court hearing. “There are dozens of organizations throughout the state that they can go. No one is being denied or being discriminated against; it’s just a matter of choice.”

With the reported decline of Illinois children in foster care dropping from just over 52,000 in 1997 to 15,500 as of this year, the Department of Children and Family Services is no stranger to the loss of partnerships.

Catholic Charities of Chicago and Rockford dropped their foster care programs in 2007 and June of this year, respectively. Rockford was out due to the Act.

DCFS spokesman, Kendall Marlowe, said that these occurrences have happened before and that if the remaining dioceses choose to break partnership, neither the children nor the Illinois foster care system will be at a loss.

“There have been several other situations where agencies have stopped providing foster care services and we have transferred those cases to another agency,” Marlowe told the Defender. “In making a transition like this we have a very strong community of private, non-profit child welfare providers who are able to step up and take on these cases.”

Following Tuesday’s court hearing, Jimmie Whitelow, another DCFS spokesman, said the state agency’s immediate response was short and simple: “Once we receive the court order, we will review it.”

But for now, Catholic Charities is not reserved in its happiness with the court’s decision.

“This is a great win for the 2,000 children under the care of Catholic Charities, protecting these kids from the grave disruption that the state’s reckless decision to terminate would have caused,” Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of Thomas More Society, said after the judge’s ruling.

“We will continue this fight until all young people in need now and in the future are guaranteed their right to receive the high-quality foster and adoption care that the Catholic Church has provided for over a century to Illinois children.”

Marlowe said DCFS remains firm in its decision to refuse a contract to the four remaining Catholic Charities dioceses if they continue to refuse their compliance with the Civil Union Act.

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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