The Kansas Legislature just loves children. They make such cute political pawns.
Why else would the rush through a last-minute adoption bill that does nothing to fix a broken system? Opinions differ on whether the new law will make the system even worse, but that is scant comfort. Adoption and foster care in Kansas are a mess, and all that many Kansas legislators seek to do about it, is score political points with their base.
Kansas’ foster care and adoption systems are so bad that some homeless children sleep in state offices. Others disappear for weeks. Reports of abuse and neglect are themselves neglected. Sometimes, children die while waiting for someone to notice. Columnist and adoption advocate Chapman Rackaway wrote, “Excessive paperwork, extreme costs, delays and the opportunities for the unscrupulous to take advantage of potential adoptees prevent many from even considering the process seriously, or force the committed to shift to international adoptions.”
That was in 2013. None of it has improved.
It is past time for a major overhaul, so what did the Legislature decide to do? Lawmakers’ last-minute rush job of a bill ignores the problems. Instead, it allows adoption contractors to deny adoptions to prospective parents who are not heterosexual. In so doing, it opens a Pandora’s box of new problems.
The lead advocate for the bill, Catholic Charities, says no worries. They argue that the new law protects their religious beliefs. They add there are plenty other of adoption contractors in Kansas with whom potential adopting families can work, if rejected by Catholic Charities. Some adoption statistics are hard to find, but there are data available for Illinois. There, Catholic Charities places about 11% of adoptions statewide.
In their argument, Catholic Charities neglected to point out how badly underfunded these adoption contractors are. Can they really pick up someone else’s slack when they are already stretched to the breaking point? Then comes another problem. Longstanding policy holds that while churches are exempt from certain state laws, government contractors are not. Organizations like Catholic Charities are not churches, they are separate, nonprofit entities founded for the purpose of soliciting government contracts. The Episcopal, Lutheran, and other churches and religious organizations do the same. The church/nonprofit separation makes the process fair and policies consistent, without touching the core functions of the church itself. This was not good enough for Catholic Charities or the Legislature. Those voicing objections lacked the political clout to be heard.
The truth is, we do not yet know if Catholic Charities is correct in stating that potential adopting families they reject need only go to other adoption-placement nonprofits instead. I hope that is true. The real problems with this bill are two.
First, the Legislature decided to use the state’s adoption system to score political points with a certain voting bloc instead of passing anything that will lead to real reform.
Second, we may be headed down a rabbit hole by disrupting the settled policy separating religiously-affiliated nonprofits bidding for government contracts, on the one hand, from churches on the other. Some other states have done it, too—but that hardly makes it a good idea.
Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.