Fostering Faith: Religion and Inequality in the History of Child Welfare Placements

April 1, 2024

Each year in the United States, approximately 700,000 children live in foster care.  Many of these children are placed in religiously oriented homes recruited and overseen by faith-based agencies (FBAs).  This arrangement—as well as the scope and operation of child welfare services more broadly—is at a crucial moment of reckoning.  Scholars and advocates focused on children’s rights and family integrity maintain that the child welfare system, increasingly termed the “family policing system,” harms children, families, and communities through unnecessary and racist child removal that is partly motivated by perverse financial incentives.  Some call for abolition.  Meanwhile, in a largely separate conversation, discussants focused on clashes between religious liberty rights and antidiscrimination laws spar over the legality and appropriateness of FBA involvement in fostering children because FBAs may exclude or provide ill-fitting services to LGBTQ individuals and religious minorities.

This Article excavates the persistent involvement of religious organizations in child placements in U.S. history to provide crucial missing context and valuable lessons for ongoing reform efforts.  People and groups motivated by religion have participated in housing poor, orphaned, and otherwise dependent children since the colonial period, gradually securing laws to ensure public funding for their private organizations and to safeguard control over coreligionist youth.  Though these services have benefitted many children in the absence of satisfactory public alternatives, they have also inflamed interfaith controversies and left children from minority religious and racial groups with unequal and inadequate care.  Criminal law innovations, including the enactment of child abuse laws and the creation of juvenile courts, reinforced religious organizations’ involvement.  As the preferred methods for child placement evolved, faith‑based providers campaigned in legislatures and the press to preserve their power and control, slowing reforms.  This Article’s account supports calls for reform by emphasizing how the modern system developed through ad hoc and contingent changes that routinely prioritized cost concerns, crime reduction, and religious groups’ interests over children’s wellbeing.

April 2024

No. 5

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