As West Virginia has been called to account for a child welfare system that has put about 7,000 foster children at heightened risk of experiencing homelessness, mental health problems, incarceration and addiction, a cadre of social conservative lawmakers – who have the audacity to hoist a “pro life” banner of hypocrisy – are rewriting state law to deny LGBTQ children equal access to foster and adoptive families.
We are just a few calendar days away from the third decade of the 21st Century and yet this is a state with the highest per capita rate of children in state protective custody, a state where many foster children sleep in spare motel rooms or state offices, a state desperate for qualified and caring foster parents, a state whose leaders seem threatened by gay, lesbian and transgender children. And, because this is a state that suffers from a political leadership vacuum, these short-sighted, poorly informed lawmakers are trying to manipulate the levers of discrimination in the name of all citizens, codifying hate and bigotry into state law.
Must feel good to be the playground bully, pushing vulnerable little kids around. In the end, however, it is the bully – and the entire state – that gets the black eye. But make no mistake, it is the child who will suffer the deeper, long-term – likely permanent – consequences.
A group of West Virginia lawmakers voted this week in committee to axe a provision of state law that requires LGBTQ children – already at higher risk of being placed in state custody and less likely to find stable homes after they enter the child welfare system – to have equal access to foster and adoptive families.
Covering all of their bases, these lawmakers also voted to let agencies reject prospective foster parents based on sexual orientation.
Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is part of the Republican band that thinks it’s A-OK to treat people differently because of their sexual identity or orientation. He was working behind the scenes last spring, trying to persuade Beckley Common Council members to vote against the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. This is not new territory for him.
He failed then and we hope he fails now.
Protections for LGBTQ youth in foster care have been in state code since 2001. So why are these legislators trying to change that now as the number of children in foster care in this state has swelled 67 percent since 2013 – a period during which the national number has increased 11 percent?
As Jeremiah Samples, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources, testified to the committee, youth in care of the state are more likely to be LGBTQ than those in the general population.
“There’s also a wealth of data that indicates that children that are LGBT are much more likely to commit suicide and have other negative consequences in life,” he said.
If Steele is kowtowing to religious concerns, as we suspect, we would remind him of the separation of church and state as expressed in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. These are public dollars addressing a public dilemma.
No one is asking for special rights, here, but only protections that the majority of people in this state take for granted.
Contrary to Steele’s work, we need to encourage more parents to step forward who can offer the comfort of a stable home. If we start crossing people’s names off the list based on sexual orientation, we diminish the pool and lose a home, a sanctuary that might be the exact right fit for a kid who has been buffeted by ill winds. In far too many instances, children in thie state have been the victims of homes and parenting shattered by the opioid drug crisis. They are the innocent ones, and yet this action – if enacted by the full Legislature – would only be punitive.
The state is already facing a lawsuit detailing the foster program’s many shortcomings. We should make more effective investments in state and local support programs that keep children safe and, eventually, reduce the need for foster care.
Steele and company’s intent strikes against basic human dignity and exacerbates a problem the state is clearly having a difficult time wrapping its limited resources around.
This bit of rule making does not reflect the basic decency of West Virginians. As such, legislators would be wise to fix what is broken – rather than deny kids a room when what they need is shelter from the storm.