Four months after a Supreme Court decision in its favor, archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) is “back 100%” in providing foster care placements for the City of Philadelphia.
“We receive referrals a couple of times each week,” said James Amato, archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services. “We’re back in the mix and back on board.”
In June, the high court ruled unanimously that the city’s March 2018 suspension of its contract with CSS violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The case originated with the city’s move to freeze all new foster care placements with CSS due to the agency’s policy of not placing children with same-sex or unmarried couples. Such unions contravene church teaching on marriage, which holds the sacrament of matrimony is reserved only to one man and one woman.
Traditionally, CSS – which traces its roots to child welfare ministries established in 1797 – has deferred referrals involving same-sex foster parents to other approved agencies for placement.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed suit shortly after the referral freeze, and the case eventually made its way to the nation’s highest court.
Once the ruling was issued, CSS and city officials reconnected to resume placements, which began in earnest about three weeks ago, Amato said.
According to the city’s Department of Human Services, more than 5,000 children and youth are in Philadelphia’s foster care system at any point in time, and Amato said he and his team were “joyous about returning to programs that are mission-critical for CSS.”
That same enthusiasm was shared by the agency’s foster parents, including Nicolia Butts, who along with her husband Daryl has opened her home to CSS referrals for some 15 years.
With three grown children of their own, the couple went on to adopt five children – Black, White and Hispanic, ages 7 to 16 — they had fostered on behalf of CSS.
“They keep me young,” said Nicolia, who admitted she was initially hesitant about becoming a foster parent.
After retiring from a banking career, she was asked to assist with childcare for a friend, who was also in the process of adopting twin girls.
“She wondered if I would be interested in foster care,” said Butts. “I said, ‘No, no. My kids are ready for college, and I don’t want to get too attached to a young child.’”
But her reserve quickly melted, especially since her husband’s grandmother and her own uncle had long been foster parents. Soon after the friend’s suggestion, the Butts family welcomed an infant girl in emergency care who stayed almost two years, with Daryl and Nicolia becoming her godparents.
The city’s 2018 suspension of referrals came as “a shock” to Nicolia, but she felt “no desire to switch to a different agency” and “never lost hope” CSS would once again provide foster care.
“I had no doubt,” said Butts. “I thought, ‘God will work it out.’”
The couple’s five foster children, all now adopted into the family, include brother and sister Jonathan, 16 and Joanne, 15; sisters Yarimar, 11 and Diana, 7; and 8-year-old son Karon. The children all remained with the Butts family as the case moved through the courts.
Jonathan and Joanne are now marking their eighth year with the family, having arrived at the home just before the end of October 2014.
“They came a couple of days before Halloween,” Butts recalled. “I had to rush to get them costumes.”
She found out about the Supreme Court ruling while verifying if she could offer respite care to a friend who was fostering a family member.
“I called CSS and asked, ‘Am I allowed to have them in my home?’” she said. “They said, ‘Great news, Mrs. Butts; we’re up and running again.’ And I said, ‘See, there was a reason I called to talk to you.’”
The key to being a successful foster parent lies in “giving the children love,” said Butts. “A lot of them don’t have that in their lives.”
Patience, compassion and an eye for observation are also essential, she said, especially since children with unaddressed special needs are often misunderstood.
“When they have disabilities, they act out a lot of times, but it’s not a behavior issue,” she said. “You have to nip that thinking in the bud, right then and there. You don’t want to label a child as a bad kid when he or she needs support and help.”
Listening to children and learning to speak their language is crucial, Butts added – particularly for kids at risk.
One child she fostered through a non-archdiocesan agency was frightened to shower, claiming he saw blood in the tub whenever the faucet was turned on. After speaking at length with the boy, Butts learned he had been traumatized by witnessing the birth of his younger brother in the family of origin’s bathroom.
Butts and her husband also focus on teaching their children life skills and self-awareness, both of which have become critical amid the city’s gun violence crisis.
“We talk about it with our children all the time,” she said. “Every Sunday, we do Bible study, and we bring up how gun violence in Philadelphia is hurting our young children. We also do different scenarios, such as what to do if someone with you has a gun. That world is easy to get caught up in, but hard to get out of.”
Foster children face a range of challenges, she said, and the process of helping unpack them can be at once demanding and rewarding.
“You don’t know what type of situation they’ve been in, and you never know what’s going to leak out of their suitcase, since it’s been closed a long time,” she said.
The hard work of healing and shaping young lives is worth it, said Butts, whose son Jonathan along with other youth was recently recognized by the Union League Legacy Foundation.
Whether kids return to their families or stay with foster families through adoption, the parent-child bond is no less deep, Butts said.
“I tell them, ‘I didn’t birth you, but I can give you love and be your support team. You are my child,’” she said.
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