HB 3859: ensures broad and diverse network for foster care reform

Jennifer Allmon
Executive Director, Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is in support of HB 3859. This bill ensures that Texas will maintain and expand a broad and diverse network of foster care providers. In light of the foster care crisis that Texas has endured, the passage of this bill is an essential tool in reform.

Since 1727, Catholic religious orders, parishes, and charities have provided charitable help to those in need, especially orphans. During the formation of the United States, and shortly after the Louisiana purchase, the Ursuline sisters of New Orleans sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson asking if they would be able to continue their charitable mission to orphans as Catholic sisters in these new United States. President Jefferson responded in a letter in 1804 assuring the sisters of his patronage and protection of their ongoing charitable work despite the fact that the territory of Louisiana was no longer part of Catholic France. He also included a donation of financial support for the charity from the United States. Public approval, appreciation and frequent funding of religiously based charities has continued to this day.

In Texas, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word began serving orphans in San Antonio and Galveston in 1866. For over 150 years, our adoption and foster care services have been an integral part of the meeting the needs of abused and neglected children in Texas. Yet in recent years, public-private partnerships have eroded significantly because of conflicts between perceived rights of individuals and the Church's conscientious choice to provide services only in accord with church teaching. We have experienced a slow-motion weakening of our first amendment right to freedom of religion that seeks to reduce religious freedom to the freedom to attend Mass and pray rather than freedom to act on our Gospel command to serve Christ present in the refugee or the foster child.

Many of the improvements in the reform efforts sought this session rely heavily on private and faith-based providers for successful reform of the system. We think this strategy leverages our deep community relationships and mission based commitment to care of children. Catholic Charities and the Catholic bishops are best equipped to recruit families from the 8.4 million Catholic Texans who sit in our parish pews weekly. Our foster care providers have been strong partners in foster care service delivery, parent recruitment, respite care, and support programs. However, based on our experiences as targets of litigation for faithful adherence to our religious beliefs, we know that this public-private partnership will not be successful without the conscience protections provided by this bill.  If those who seek to sue us out of existence are successful, they will invariably move on to their next litigation target rather than opening up a foster care program.

Reforms sought this session call for increased capacity for the foster care system by encouraging collaboration with foster care providers, faith-based communities, and advocate groups. The House workgroup, our Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker, and Commissioner have recognized that a critical solution to stabilizing the fragile foster care system is to enlist the help of religious leaders and faith based providers. It would be tragic if the reforms did not allow us to provide this help in accordance with the very values that make our assistance so essential to the success of reform.

The bishops believe that, “it does not serve the common good to treat the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life; to the contrary, they [our good works] are essential to its proper functioning.” (Our First Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty, USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty)

The Catholic Church is responsible for an impressive array of hospitals, clinics, universities, colleges, schools, adoption agencies, overseas development projects, and social service agencies that provide assistance to the poor, the hungry, immigrants, and those faced with crisis pregnancies. We do the work that the Gospel mandates that we do, yet too often today we are forced to choose between the good works we do by faith, and fidelity to that faith itself.

The children in the Texas child welfare system deserve the best we have to offer, yet without conscience protection, it is the children and families in crisis who suffer.  Conscience protections allow our faith-based providers to continue to be a safe and loving refuge for children in crisis and to accompany them on their journey to healing and wholeness, breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect one child at a time.