Stealth lawsuits threaten children’s ministries
Rusty Benson
Rusty Benson
AFA Journal associate editor

November-December 2008 – In a series of legal actions, child welfare systems in a number of states have been embroiled in lawsuits levied by an organization whose roots are in the American Civil Liberties Union. As an indirect result, some Christian residential care homes are no longer serving children referred by the state, while others have been forced to provide only shorter term, pathology-based services or close their doors.

Children’s Rights (CR), a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group that claims to be working to reform child welfare systems, has won cases in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Critics charge that the CR lawsuits often result in limiting placement options for needy children and dictate shortsighted and worn-out solutions. In addition, they charge that CR wrongly portrays all residential care homes as warehouses for children and sees them as a last resort for needy children, at best, and at worst, harmful. Instead, the lawsuits promote foster care and adoption as superior solutions. While that may sound noble, according to some who work inside child care agencies, those options are not always possible or preferable for every child.     

“CR sees anything that is big as bad,” explains Heidi Goldsmith, founder and executive director of the Coalition for Residential Education (CORE), a Washington, D.C.-based organization promoting boarding schools and children’s homes for economically and socially disadvantaged youth. Goldsmith says that when CR targets a state welfare system, their attorneys are uninterested in working with existing residential services, resources and people for the good of disadvantaged children,  forcing their own myopic views of adequate child care.  

In most states where CR brought a lawsuit, the various child care providers are completely shut out of the settlement process. For example, in Tennessee, providers knew nothing of the CR lawsuit until a settlement had been reached. “We found out about the lawsuit when the Department of Child Services (DCS) began implementing the changes,” said Bryant Millsaps, president of Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes (TBCH). TBCH is the state’s largest non-contract provider of residential care for disadvantaged children and has been in ministry for over a century. 

Although TBCH takes no state funding, the CR lawsuit still impacts the ministry because the settlement forbids placing children in what the settlement calls “congregant care.” The state DCS further objects to mandatory church attendance, a requirement at odds with TBCH’s mission. As a result, TBCH is no longer a placement choice for children by the state system, despite the fact that in the past such placements have cost the taxpayers of Tennessee nothing. In addition, Millsaps says that by the state’s own standard, TBCH provides a very high level of care for needy children.

For providers in Tennessee who have depended on state contracts to help fund their operations, the lawsuit settlement, which reflects CR’s low view of residential care, has had a significant financial impact. 

“It almost put us out of business,” said Dr. Don Campbell, treatment director at Tennessee Children’s Home (TCH) in Spring Hill. Their campus population dropped from 32 to 13 after the settlement, requiring staff and services to be cut. 

In Mississippi, Palmer Home for Children (PHC) has been a leader in providing for the needs of children from troubled home situations since 1895. Although the CR settlement in that state applies only to children in the foster care system, it signals a clear bias against institutional providers, according to Ed Waldron, PHC president. Waldron is concerned that the state could easily apply the terms of the settlement to all agencies it licenses, including privately funded ones like PHC.

For example, “If DHS (Department of Human Services) cannot place children under age 10 in residential care, it’s but a very small step indeed for licensing standards to say that residential care institutions cannot accept for admission children under age 10,” he told PHC’s board of directors. 

Such a move would mean a virtual state takeover of the activities and policies of Palmer Home; cost the home unnecessary and scarce financial resources to fight; and threaten its distinctively Christian approach to child care ministry.

Waldron says those involved in residential home ministries must be vigilant and proactive in communicating the relevance of their work. “We need to make a positive and compelling statement of who we are and why the services we provide are intensely relevant, a statement that conveys our passion to meet the needs of body and of spirit for those who are weak, a statement that affirms our unyielding commitment to help mend their brokenness, to fill their emptiness, and to restore for each child full opportunity to be numbered among the strong and so to become all that our gracious God so lovingly intends.”   

For readers who want to help protect Christian children’s homes from the impact of a CR lawsuit, Goldsmith suggests making state lawmakers, child welfare officials and children’s home board members aware of the movements and tactics of CR.  undefined