The city of Philadelphia was badly in need of foster parents when it froze referrals to Catholic Social Services, citing the agency's refusal to place children with same-sex couples.
In March 2018, two months before the referral freeze, city officials put out an urgent call for 300 additional foster families. The first major recruitment effort in a decade was a response to systemwide strain caused by the opioid epidemic.
That crisis hasn't abated, and litigators expect the coronavirus pandemic to make things worse. Though Catholic Social Services will be able to complement the city's response going forward after its victory Thursday in the Supreme Court, Philadelphia's campaign to oust the Catholic agency from the foster care system left some of the city's most vulnerable children in the lurch.
"The biggest concern is the availability of empty beds for foster children, and the fact the city has said they have foster children who were in group homes or institutional care that could have been placed with loving foster families. Catholic Social Services has families ready to take in foster children today," said Nick Reaves, a Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lawyer who represents the agency.
One client who lingered in the system was a child with autism. The child did not eat normally or speak in full sentences, and he was generally afraid of basic daily tasks like bathing, according to court papers. Before the referral freeze, Catholic Social Services placed the child with a foster mother experienced in caring for children with special needs. The foster mother is likewise unnamed in the record.
The child showed marked progress during his placement with his first foster family. He began therapy, enrolled in a specialized school, and bonded deeply with his foster mother's grandchild. A Catholic Social Services case manager judged that the child had come "a very long way" and forged a "strong bond" with his foster mother, according to a 2018 email from agency workers available in legal filings.
The unnamed guardian seriously considered adopting him, provided that one of her adult children would cosign and assume care in the event she was unable to parent him.
A second family that was prepared to adopt immediately stepped forward, so social workers reassigned the child to their care. Soon thereafter, authorities began investigating the second family and removed all children from that home. Details of the emergency intervention were not available in court papers.
The first Catholic Social Services-certified parent offered to adopt the child immediately. But the referral freeze was in effect at that point, and city authorities rejected the offer. He was sent to a group home, where he regressed significantly, according to his first foster mother.
Reaves told the Washington Free Beacon that the child was ultimately adopted by his first foster family after the city made a one-off exception, but not before lingering in a suboptimal setting at the cost of past progress.
"Catholic Social Services was aware of numerous other children who weren't being placed with foster families and were instead stuck in groups homes or in institutional care," Reaves told the Free Beacon.
The consequences for black children could be particularly acute. Catholic Social Services has a historic mission focus on Philadelphia's African-American community that was reflected in its foster care and adoption programs. Given the three-year referral freeze, those children weren't assigned to an agency with deep ties to their community.
"The statistics show that about 70 percent of the children that Catholic Social Services places are racial minorities," Reaves told the Free Beacon. "And about 60 percent of the foster families that they recruit are also racial minorities. I'm not aware of any new agency that's opened up in the meantime to serve that community."
Catholic Social Services also placed more sibling groups and older children than other agencies in the Philadelphia area.
Additional COVID-related stress is likely to tax Philadelphia's foster care system further still. Reaves said he expects an uptick in foster care placements as the pandemic recedes, since typical point sources for foster referrals, like teachers, haven't been around children for a full year.
"As things start to open up and as kids are going back to school, there's likely to be an increased need for foster families," Reaves told the Free Beacon.
About 5,000 children are in Philadelphia's foster care system at any given time, data maintained by the city show.
The case is No. 19-123 Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.