State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, is congratulated after the passage of an adoption bill compromise in the House. The Senate has delayed action on the measure. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Behind debate over an adoption bill: A push for church-based, privatized foster care

To help explain why the first rewrite of the state’s adoption laws in a generation has roiled the state Legislature for two years, and continues to do so this weekend, I point you to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech.

You’ll recall that, last Tuesday, Trump told the story of a young Albuquerque, N.M., police officer who encountered a pregnant drug addict while on duty. The officer and his wife later adopted the child. The couple was given a place next to first lady Melania Trump in the U.S. House chamber.

It was powerful stuff.

The February 2nd, 2018 edition of Georgia Legislative Week in Review with Mark Neisse, Maya T. Prabhu and the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The next morning, an email arrived from an ex-newspaper colleague who has become a promoter of conservative causes. She identified the New Mexico cop and his wife as the key to understanding why House Bill 159 has struggled – this year and last year.

Religious conservatives in the Senate want to encourage a private, faith-based foster care system free of government oversight. Others in the Capitol, including Gov. Nathan Deal, have been less enthusiastic.

“If parents want to get their act together and get help,” my friend wrote, “then they could designate people like this family to watch their children for up to one year while in treatment, instead of DFCS sending them off to strangers.”

She pointed me to FaithBridge Foster Care, an Alpharetta-based organization that locates foster parents through its network of churches and now claims to be “one of the largest private child placement agencies in Georgia.”

Ultimately, the group’s leaders declined to talk, but a walk through FaithBridge’s website explains much.

Introduced last year by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, HB 159 was intended to streamline an adoption process that has become lengthy and cumbersome. The bill passed the House unanimously, but the state Senate tacked on a “religious liberty” provision that provided legal protection to child placement agencies that accepted taxpayer cash – but refused to work with same-sex couples.

From FaithBridge’s website: “We believe God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”

Also introduced last year was HB 359, a bill that would have permitted a parent to temporarily hand off custody of a child to another individual or group – through the power of attorney, with no oversight by state authorities.

This, too, appears to fit FaithBridge’s goal: “Our mission is to mobilize, organize, and equip local churches to solve their community’s foster care crisis.” Mentors, volunteers, babysitting care, and meal support are handled through the individual church.

Deal vetoed HB 359, objecting to the creation of “a parallel [child placement] system in which DFCS has no oversight.” And the governor condemned the Senate for failing to hand him a “clean” adoption bill.

Fast-forward a year, and the “religious liberty” provision has been stripped from the adoption bill. Instead, the Senate inserted the contents of HB 359, the bill to allow parents to quickly hand off custody of their children without scrutiny from state government.

“What the Senate did … is to remove one religious preference provision and add another one,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a specialist in family law who helped draft HB 159. She has a point.

To explain the election-year tenacity of Senate Republicans, one need only look at the churches participating in FaithBridge’s private network. They are some of the largest and most politically active in the state, including First Baptist Woodstock, New Salem Baptist Church in Kennesaw, and North Point Community Church in Alpharetta.

The clout of religious conservatives has declined in the state Capitol over the last decade, but they still wield out-sized influence in Republican primaries — and, as we saw in the 2016 presidential race, general elections.

Money is a factor, too. Richard Jackson is CEO of Jackson Healthcare, a longtime advocate of privatizing the state foster care system. According to FaithBridge’s website, Jackson is also a major investor in the child placement agency, and chairman of its governing board.

Jackson is also a major contributor to GOP political campaigns, including Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

On Thursday, Deal and Cagle reached a compromise on the part of HB 159 that allows parents to hand off custody of their children for up to a year without state oversight – although the substitute custody can be renewed year by year.

The governor was able to insist on a stronger background check for those who would be receiving temporary custody of these children. Agencies that broker the agreements would be required to register with a state Department of Human Services database.

Handoffs would have to be recorded in local probate courts, and state authorities would have access to the documents should suspicions arise. And parents could be held responsible if the persons to whom they handed their children turned out to be, um, unsavory.

The House signed off on the compromise with a unanimous vote on Thursday. The Senate demanded the weekend to think it over.

It is easy to see that there are people of good will on all sides of this debate, and that the opioid crisis has left many children without functioning parents. But it’s also clear that Governor Deal is obliged to be the one who recognizes that religiosity and virtue don’t always travel hand-in-hand. Bad actors can be everywhere, even and perhaps especially when children are involved.

The law of unintended consequences applies here as well. Before the Thursday compromise was announced, I texted two questions to both the Deal and Cagle camps about this private foster care system that we’re apparently about to try.

Question No. 1: Could the power of attorney used by a parent to hand off custody of a child become a quick way for a parent to shift a student out of a bad school and into a good one? Many people would say that could be a good thing.

And a related Question No. 2: Could this also become a tool by which custody of a talented student athlete is handed to a coach or booster in another school district, creating a kind of high school free agency? If so, high school football in Georgia could get more interesting than it already is.

So far, students of the latest version of HB 159 tell me there’s nothing in the bill that would prohibit either.

***

Want to know the details of HB 159 as the compromise now stands? Here it is below:

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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