City Council postpones foster-care hearing

City Council hearings on alleged anti-LGBT bias within foster-care agencies that contract with the city won’t take place before fall, said a spokesperson for the council member who introduced the resolution.

After published reports of anti-LGBT bias within two foster-care agencies that contract with the city’s Department of Human Services, City Council member Cindy Bass introduced a resolution that was adopted to hold public hearings on the issue. The hearings were expected to be held by Bass’ Committee on Public Health and Human Services ahead of the summer recess at the end of June.

But that schedule has been delayed due to extensive City Council hearings regarding Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget, said Layla Jones, a spokesperson for Bass. “City Council does not hold hearings in the summer, so we will likely schedule something for the fall,” said Jones.  

On May 16, Catholic Social Services filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city’s Department of Human Services of religious discrimination for suspending its foster-care in March. At the time, city officials said CSS’ contract had to be suspended because CSS allegedly won’t place foster children with LGBT adults who are open about their status. The contract with CSS ends next month.

The CSS lawsuit won’t stop City Council’s hearings, Jones said. “There is a pending lawsuit against the city which may limit what information DHS can provide [during the public hearings] while that is ongoing,” she said. “However, Councilwoman Bass intends to push for a thorough review of all [28] DHS foster-care provider contracts to ensure compliance with the city’s anti-discrimination policies for protected classes. If any are found in violation, she believes their contract should be terminated immediately.”

Bethany Christian Services, another faith-based agency that allegedly won’t place foster children with LGBT adults, also had its DHS foster-care contract suspended. Bethany issued this statement May 21 regarding CSS’ lawsuit: “It is our hope that government and community organizations can work together in partnership to be part of the solution, offering services to vulnerable children and families.”

Before their contracts were suspended, CSS and Bethany received an aggregate amount of about $3 million annually in city funds for providing foster-care services to about 230 local children.

CSS’  lawsuit, Fulton v. Philadelphia, contains 16 counts against the city, alleging violations of federal, state and local laws. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges violations of antibias provisions within the city’s charter; violations of constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, equal protection, due process, freedom of speech and freedom of the press; breach of contract; and retaliation. The lawsuit, which is pending before U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker, also cites extensive case law and statutory law to support its allegations.

“The City of Philadelphia has decided to cut off foster placements for [CSS] and prioritize political grandstanding over the needs of children,” the 40-page lawsuit states, in part.

CSS is represented by Becket, a D.C.-based law firm specializing in religious-freedom cases. The named plaintiffs are three of CSS’ foster parents: Sharonell Fulton, Cecelia Paul and Toni Lynn Simms-Busch. The foster parents will be denied future opportunities to serve if CSS is forced to close its foster program, according to the suit. In its court filing, CSS said it supervises 100 foster homes and provides care through its city contract for 120 children on average per day. The city of Philadelphia has an estimated 5,000 children in foster care.

Kenneth A. Gavin, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said in a statement that CSS has been providing foster services for more than a century. CSS “recognizes the vital importance of the foster-care program in our city and is proud to provide safe and nurturing foster environments to young people in need. CSS joined with Sharonell Fulton and other foster parents [May 16] in asking a Philadelphia court to end the City policy that is leaving foster homes sitting empty while the City is in a foster-care crisis. At this time, the City is threatening to stop allowing CSS to place children in foster homes on a permanent basis because of our deeply held religious beliefs.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said that foster care must be provided without discrimination.

“While we can’t comment directly on the lawsuit — and while we are genuinely appreciative of the services that [CSS] provides on the City’s behalf to the City’s most vulnerable children and to the resource families that care for those children — those services must be provided in a nondiscriminatory manner.  As [CSS] works on the City’s behalf, we cannot allow discrimination against qualified couples who are ready to take on this important role, simply because of who they are.”

Stephanie Haynes, executive director of Philadelphia Family Pride, declined to comment on the specifics of this lawsuit, but said: “As we all know, there is a big need for more adults to step forward and support children and youth in the care of DHS. In conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs, PFP has been supporting that effort through a series of very popular recruitment events aimed at encouraging LGBTQ adults to become resource parents, particularly for LGBTQ youth.”

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.