30 September 2011

A presumption of guilt

Steven Roach, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois recently penned an editorial commenting on Judge John Schmidt's recent ruling in favor of the Department of Children and Family Services of the State of Illinois.

The State Journal-Register would not print the editorial - presumably for reasons of length - but I am happy to publish it for you here, with my emphases:

A Presumption of Guilt
For 40 years, Catholic Charities in Illinois has partnered with DCFS in providing foster care and adoption services for the state’s abused and neglected children. Both parties agree that it has been a highly successful partnership, effectively providing care and permanent loving homes for literally tens of thousands of these vulnerable children. The partnership saved taxpayers millions of dollars, since Catholic Charities does it much cheaper than if the state itself provided the services.  In addition, the partnership also enabled the state to capture tens of millions more in federal reimbursement because of the outstanding success Catholic Charities (and other private agencies) achieved in effectively providing these programs.
The state has publically pronounced that the partnership in Illinois between DCFS and private agencies should serve as a national model to be replicated across the country as the best way to manage the tremendous difficulties of a statewide child welfare system. As one of the largest private agencies in the state, Catholic Charities is proud to have been an integral part of this successful model.
We have worked closely with our friends at DCFS over the years to ensure that the best interest of children was always the primary motivation for the services that were provided. A rare “win-win” situation was created. The children won because they were being provided with the highest quality care when they were placed with Catholic Charities. DCFS won because Catholic Charities helped them meet the vast legal and federal requirements that are placed on the state.  The taxpayers of Illinois won because by privatizing 80% of the casework in the child welfare system, the state annually saves millions.
Catholic Charities won because these programs allowed us to fulfill one of the primary objectives of our religious mission – serving children in desperate need – the modern-day “orphans”.  Catholic Charities was always found to be in complete compliance with all Illinois and federal law according to the state’s own constant monitoring reviews. Year after year, we were praised by DCFS for our accomplishments and thanked for being a “valued partner” in the service of children.  And then something changed
The current controversy between Catholic Charities and the State of Illinois began with the passage of the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.  Quite simply, at issue is whether or not religious freedom protection actually exists in this new law (and other laws) and that it applies to Catholic Charities foster care and adoption programs.  Immediately after its passage, the state accused Catholic Charities of being in violation of the law because of our opposition to the placement of children in the homes of unmarried couples who are living together, regardless of sexual orientation. Our position is based on centuries’ old religious teachings about the definition of marriage and the inappropriateness of unmarried cohabitation. In the past, the state never had an issue with our practice regarding unmarried and cohabitating heterosexual couples, but since unmarried and cohabitating homosexual couples were thrust into the equation, the state went on the attack. The fact is that such couples have many other options available to them. Our religious practices do not deny those opportunities to anyone.

And so Catholic Charities stands accused of discrimination by the state for being in violation of the Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act.  From the beginning, we have adamantly maintained that we are in full compliance with this new law given the religious protection language actually written into the law and the legislative intent defined in the Senate debate that clearly protects “institutions of faith” with “various agencies providing social services, retreats, religious camps, homeless shelters, senior service centers, adoption agencies, hospitals” from interference or regulation. However, this religious protection has been completely dismissed by the state and instead we have been treated under a presumption of guilt. 

The state’s sole reason for terminating the foster care/adoption contracts after 40 years is based on this presumption of guilt – “Catholic Charities is in violation of the new law and therefore the contracts will be terminated”.  No other reason has been given to sever this successful partnership because no other reason exists. We continue to maintain that we are in full compliance with the new law and believe if you are accused of something, you have a right to defend yourself against those specific allegations.   

Catholic Charities went to court to get an answer to the specific accusation levied against us.  We felt if we were found by a court to be in compliance with the new law, then obviously there is no reason for the partnership with DCFS to be terminated.  After all for decades, it has proven to be in the best interest of Illinois’ children that the partnership continued.  The recent ruling failed to address the critical question of Catholic Charities’ compliance with the new law - the entire reason for this controversy.

Most of the criticism and opposition to Catholic Charities supports the state’s presumption of guilt. It goes something like this, “If Catholic Charities refuses to comply with the law, they should not be allowed to contract with the state”, or “Taxpayer money/public funds should not be used to fund agencies that are in violation of the law.”  Both statements are based on the biased premise that Catholic Charities is already guilty of the accusations made by the state.

Should Catholic Charities be allowed to defend itself against the allegations that caused the termination of our contracts? We feel any reasonable person would agree we should have the opportunity to “face our accusers,” especially with so much at stake for thousands of our foster children, foster parents and dedicated staff. 

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