In any given year, hundreds of thousands of children spend time in the US foster care system, a quarter of them seeking adoption into a loving family. Yet many of these children bounce from home to home, never adopted, and enter adult life without any family ties. Public policy should seek to increase the likelihood of adoption by removing barriers to families that are seeking to adopt and to providers that are seeking to place children in need of a home.

As we explain in our recent report, achieving this goal requires a public policy that provides freedom to the diverse groups that serve the needs of children: freedom to maintain licensing, recruit potential adoptive families, and find permanent, loving homes for vulnerable children. Private child welfare providers, in particular, have an important role to play in uniting children with families. They can help to increase adoption rates by effectively and compassionately addressing the concerns of potential families.

Provided these agencies meet basic requirements for protecting the welfare of children, they should be free to operate according to their values, especially their religiously informed beliefs about marriage. Policy should respect the freedom of foster care and adoption agencies that believe children do best when raised in a married mother-and-father home. And yet various states have adopted policies that force faith-based providers who believe children deserve a mom and a dad out of this space. These policies do nothing to help children, as they unnecessarily limit the number of good agencies working on their behalf.

Earlier this week, Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) and Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would protect the right of child welfare providers, including private and faith-based adoption and foster care agencies, to continue providing valuable services to families and children. The federal government and states receiving certain federal child welfare funds would be prohibited from discriminating against any child welfare providers simply because the providers decline to provide a service that conflicts with their religious or moral convictions.

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Protecting the conscience rights and religious liberty of private adoption providers takes nothing away from others. Indeed, not every private provider needs to perform every service, and state-run agencies can provide a complete array of services. Protecting a diversity of private providers and their ability to operate according to their values—and with families who share those values—makes it more likely that the greatest possible number of children will be connected with permanent, loving families.

Thousands of Children Languish in Foster Care

Of the roughly 400,000 children in the foster care system today, 18 percent have been in foster care for more than three years, and 9 percent have been in the system for more than five years. Fluctuating among foster care homes, relatives, and other caretakers, these children’s lives are often marked by uncertainty and instability.

Systemic inefficiencies in the foster care system often overpower the good intentions of the many social workers and government agencies charged with providing an effective safety net for vulnerable children. A lack of state accountability, funding incentives that increase foster care rolls, and a complex bureaucracy hinder a child’s chance for swift placement in a permanent, loving home.

As a result, the number of adolescents aging out of foster care every year—never finding a permanent family placement and entering adulthood alone—has risen from 19,000 to over 23,000 during the past decade. Without the emotional, relational, and financial support structure of a loving, permanent family, these children are at increased risk for low academic achievement and poverty.

These social costs also bring a price tag for taxpayers. Many teens who age out of the foster care system without the stability and support of a permanent family will rely on numerous government benefits during their adult lives. According to the National Council for Adoption, the roughly 29,000 teens who aged out of foster care in 2007 will cost over $1 billion per year in average public assistance and support.

Policy should seek to find permanent homes for these children and be structured to increase the number of available families connected with children eligible for adoption. Nearly a quarter of all children presently in foster care—roughly 100,000—are currently waiting to be adopted.

Connecting Children with Permanent Families

In the face of great need, many Americans have considered adoption and are willing to adopt infants and children in foster care. One in five Americans have considered or are considering adopting children from foster care. Yet the systemic inefficiencies of the current foster care system often dissuade potential parents from continuing or even beginning the process of adoption. Private providers, especially those that incorporate faith perspectives, can help alleviate this problem by better attending to the unique and personal needs and concerns of potential adoptive families.

Across the United States, there are more than 1,000 private, licensed foster care and adoption providers. Many are faith-based organizations whose religious and moral beliefs motivate their care for some of the most vulnerable children in society.

The value of faith-based communities and providers extends well beyond their ability to connect vulnerable children with loving homes or to guide prospective families through the labyrinth of the foster care and adoption systems. In addition to offering legal, administrative, and material support to adoptive families and birth mothers, private and faith-based organizations often provide intangible (yet invaluable) spiritual, emotional, and relational support that large, bureaucratic state-run agencies are ill-equipped to offer.

With these unique capacities, private and faith-based providers make a significant impact in joining infants, children, and teens with families each year. For instance, Bethany Christian Services has been connecting vulnerable children with permanent, loving homes for almost seventy years. In 2012 alone, Bethany assisted families across the country in welcoming 656 infants into their homes, found temporary homes for over 2,200 children in foster care, and helped over 600 older foster care children find permanent families.

Likewise, Catholic Charities affiliates across the country provide adoption services, including foster care and adoption placement, home study, adoption support groups, and other services. Of the more than 3,000 adoptions that Catholic Charities helped complete in 2012, almost 600 infants found families and over 1,700 children were adopted from foster care. That same year, more than 1,600 special needs or “hard-to-place” children found permanent homes with the help of Catholic Charities.

The impact of these and many other faith-based and private providers is significant. In 2007, of the roughly 76,000 unrelated domestic adoptions that occurred in the United States, more than 20,000 were handled by private providers. While public agencies continue to provide the largest number of domestic adoptions, the work and success of private, often faith-based organizations help to increase the number of children who find permanent homes every year.

Efficiently and Effectively Connecting Families to Waiting Children

For every child waiting to be adopted from foster care, there are 500 married households and three religious congregations in America. Private adoption providers, particularly those affiliated with religious communities, can help mobilize families to respond to this great need.

For example, the faith-based organization Wait No More hosts events that gather government leaders, churches, private adoption providers, and prospective adoptive parents to provide information and opportunities to begin the adoption process on site. Launched in 2008 by Focus on the Family, the one-day events introduce prospective families to the hundreds of children waiting for adoption in their own communities and provide the tools, information, and network to encourage families to consider opening their homes and lives to vulnerable children.

To date, Wait No More events have taken place in fourteen states, and 2,600 families have begun the adoption process from foster care. In Colorado alone, the number of children in foster care waiting for adoption was cut in half within just a couple of years due to ongoing efforts such as Wait No More and other faith-based collaborations.

Even the Obama Administration has recognized the significance of private, faith-based organizations in increasing the number of adopted children and supporting adoptive and foster families:

Despite the powerful role government can play in supporting adoption, the responsibility is always shared with families, communities and faith-based organizations to support children and families who need homes. So many faith-based and community organizations across the country are doing tremendous work to ensure that every child has a happy, safe home. This includes houses of worship that encourage their members to adopt and commit to supporting adoptive and foster families in their congregations.

Yet policies are now threatening the freedom of private and faith-based providers to abide by their religious and moral beliefs while continuing to meet the needs of children, parents, and communities effectively.

Freedom of Private Adoption Providers Threatened

In a number of states, sexual orientation laws, coupled with the redefinition of marriage or the creation of same-sex civil unions, are threatening the freedom of private foster care and adoption providers who believe children deserve a married mother and father. These providers should not be forced to forfeit the very beliefs that motivate them to care for families and vulnerable children.

As Thomas Atwood, former president of the National Council for Adoption, notes,

Not only do [sexual orientation] laws violate religious liberty, they harm children because they force high-quality, compassionate social service agencies to shut down. If all faith-based agencies closed due to such laws, the adoption and child welfare field would be decimated, depriving thousands of children growing up in families.

These threats to religious freedom and the good work of private providers have already been felt in states such as Illinois. In 2011, a new state civil union law, coupled with an existing sexual orientation policy, effectively forced private agencies to license unmarried, cohabitating couples—including same-sex couples—as foster care parents in order to keep state contracts. For decades, the Evangelical Child and Family Agency (ECFA) had contracted with Illinois to provide foster care services. Because ECFA was convinced that children deserve to experience the unique benefits provided by a married mother and father, the state would not renew its foster care contract. As a result, ECFA was forced to transfer the cases of the foster children it served to different agencies and to end the foster care program that had connected children with permanent families.

When combined with other private providers in Illinois, including numerous Catholic Charities affiliates, ECFA and other faith-based organizations in the state were forced to stop serving over 2,000 children, transferring their cases to other providers.

Similar situations have happened in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, where the redefinition of marriage—coupled with sexual orientation policies—required all faith-based providers to place children with same-sex couples.

Religious Liberty Takes Nothing Away

Protecting the rights of conscience and religious liberty takes nothing away from anyone. Allowing private adoption providers to operate according to their own values—including declining to place children in unmarried or same-sex households—does not prevent public agencies or other private providers from choosing to do so.

Regardless of how states decide to craft policy allowing unmarried individuals or same-sex couples to adopt children, private providers should not be forced to violate their beliefs. Public agencies and some private providers, when allowed by state law, can choose to license unmarried and same-sex couples for adoption. Nothing is taken away if other private providers decline to do so. The legal right of an unmarried or same-sex couple to adopt, where it exists, should not require every adoption provider to perform such adoptions. Requiring that they do so places the interests of adults over those of children, the exact opposite of what good policy on adoption should do.

What Can Be Done

Foster care and adoption policy should always place the welfare of children first. In order to meet this goal, Congress should protect the right of private and faith-based adoption and foster care providers to continue providing valuable services to families and children. The Kelly-Enzi Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act is a step in the right direction.

America’s foster care programs are in dire need of systemic reform to ensure that more of the 400,000 children and teens who filter through the system every year find permanent, loving homes. Foster care and adoption policy should put the best interests of children first and seek to increase the number of families willing to foster and potentially adopt children, not risk reducing the number of agencies or families working for children.

Protecting the freedom of private and faith-based organizations to work in accordance with their values does not prohibit individuals and couples from using state-run or other private providers that do not operate according to those principles. A diversity of providers only increases the chances that more children and teens waiting for adoption will finally be connected with a permanent, loving family.

A longer version of this article was originally published as a backgrounder for the Heritage Foundation, entitled “Adoption, Foster Care, and Conscience Protection.