by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director
Gov. McDonnell is kicking off a campaign in celebration of Foster Care Month, beginning with a rally on May 17th in Richmond.  He says his goals are to increase the number of adoptions in our state, and raise awareness about the processes and procedures for adoption and becoming a foster parent.  He has committed to, “change 1,000 lives in 2013”. 

The ACLU of Virginia applauds the initiative to make sure all children have the opportunity to grow up in forever homes.  Nonetheless, we remain concerned that there are willing prospective parents in Virginia that continue to be denied the opportunity to adopt or foster children and thousands of children who will continue to be denied loving homes as a result.
Currently, Virginia does not allow two people to adopt the same child unless they are a man and a woman who are married to each other. Single people can adopt or foster legally, but it appears that, despite the Governor’s campaign, the state is actively discouraging legally qualified single unmarried adults (whether gay or straight) from offering a child a forever home. This is particularly true when the prospective parent is in a long-term, stable, monogamous relationship with someone to whom they are not married, but share a residence. 

Add to this that, in 2012, the legislature authorized private adoption and foster care agencies that are funded with tax dollars to screen and reject potential foster or adoptive parents and children in need of such services based on the agency’s religious beliefs and/or moral principles. This allows state-sanctioned and state-funded discrimination against potential LGBT parents, and others based on factors such as age, disability, or religion.

While Virginia’s foster care rate (2.6 children per 1,000) currently is the lowest in the nation, this still means that Virginia has more than 5,000 children in foster care. More disturbingly, once a child is placed in foster care in Virginia, they are less likely than children in other states to gain placement in a forever home.  According to the Virginia Department of Social Services’ own website, Virginia leads the nation in the percentage of children who age out of foster care (32%), and the average time that children spend in foster care before they gain a loving home (18.1 months) is the second longest in the nation.  If Virginia is serious about changing these statistics and finding forever homes for  the more than 1600 children now in foster care who will age out of the system at 18, it’s time to put an end to policies and practices that discourage any qualified parents (single or married, gay or straight, young or old) from offering such loving homes.
This is especially important to the children in the system who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.  Studies suggest that the percentage of LGBT youth in the foster care system is likely to be higher than the percentage of LGBT people in the general population (estimated at 5-10%) because LGBT youth are often the victims of discrimination and abuse by their families of origin.  Many of these young people become part of the foster care system either by choice or agency placement.  Equally as disturbing, many of these youth – as many as an estimated 78% – endure further harassment or abuse after being placed in out-of-home care, resulting in many homeless or transient youth who have chosen to live on the streets rather than suffer harassment, abuse and violence at “home” and an increased presence in the juvenile justice system. 

The ACLU of Virginia calls on Gov. McDonnell to take action to end discrimination against people and families in our state to ensure that not a single person is prevented from adopting or fostering by "lifestyle" determinations that are nothing more than discriminatory practices that deny prospective parents the opportunity to provide a home for a child or a child the opportunity to find a forever family. 

Virginia has finally repealed a Victorian-era law criminalizing cohabitation.  It is time to put an end to similar antiquated policies that interject the government into our homes and private lives in a manner that bears no relationship to the qualification or suitability of a parent or the best interests of the child.

Take action now and join us in asking the Governor to celebrate Foster Care Month by ending discriminatory practices that keep children in need from their forever families.  Every child deserves a safe and loving home.  No child should be left “homeless” due to discrimination. No devoted prospective parent should be turned away because of prejudice.