Analysis Immigration

Bethany Christian Services Is Fostering Migrant Kids. It Also Has a History of Coercive Adoptions.

Amy Littlefield & Tina Vasquez

Media outlets have largely overlooked the troubling record of Bethany, a well-connected powerhouse of the anti-choice movement, even as reporters have interviewed the agency’s leaders on the plight of migrant kids.

A Michigan state official told Rewire.News there is no real system in place for finding the parents of children separated from their families by the Trump administration. Some of those children are being housed in the state by Bethany Christian Services, a religious adoption agency with a troubling record.

Vicki Levengood, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, described a “chaotic” situation where the foster agency calls detention center officials, who then cry out the names of children into rooms full of people to see if anyone there knows them.

Levengood said the department’s director, Agustin V. Arbulu, learned the details during a phone call with Dona Abbott, branch director of refugee services for Bethany.

“She described to him how they are backtracking with the little information children come with: name, age, gender, nation of origin, and the area where they were held, not necessarily [the] name of the exact detention facility,” Levengood said. “Staff at Bethany, from what they’re telling us, contact detention centers in the vicinity where the child was taken, asking the staff if they have anyone in detention who is connected to X child and leave a name.”

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Levengood’s agency released a statement last week noting that infants as young as three months old had been transported to the state.

“We’re doing our best, but I don’t think we have a handle on it all,” Levengood said.

Her words reflect the apparent lack of a plan to unify about 2,000 migrant children who remain divided from their parents, though a federal judge on Tuesday ordered that border authorities reunite families within 30 days. Rendered “unaccompanied” by the government, these children are now the responsibility of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which handles unaccompanied immigrant minors.

ORR has funneled these children into a patchwork of shelters and foster homes overseen by organizations including Bethany, which has long faced accusations of discriminating against LGBTQ couples and coercing parents into giving up babies for adoption.

Media outlets have largely overlooked the troubling record of Bethany, a well-connected powerhouse of the anti-choice movement, even as reporters have interviewed the agency’s leaders on the plight of migrant kids. Nor have outlets mentioned the troubling history of ORR director, Scott Lloyd, who blocked young people in ORR custody from accessing abortion care.

Nothing in Lloyd’s professional background suggests he is qualified to head ORR, yet he’s been tasked with overseeing the day-to-day care of the country’s most vulnerable people: child refugees, many of whom came to the United States to escape persecution and gender-based violence. As Rewire.News reported, Lloyd is an anti-choice radical who has emerged as a staunch opponent of reproductive rights. Lloyd has taken it upon himself to “counsel” pregnant young people in ORR-affiliated shelters, as he admitted to the Christian Broadcasting Network. Immigration advocates see Lloyd as an ideological pick by the Trump administration as it ushers “anti-choice fanaticism” into the immigration system.

Even prior to the Trump administration, there have been documented cases of young people being punished for wanting abortion care.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently litigating a religious shelter case against ORR that began in 2016 under the Obama administration. Religiously affiliated shelters, which have received millions of dollars in federal funds as contractors with ORR, have kicked out young people for having an abortion or simply requesting access to abortion.

Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, is the lead attorney on both the religious shelter case and Azar v. Garza, a class action lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s exercise of veto power over unaccompanied immigrant minors’ access to abortion in ORR custody. The attorney told Rewire.News earlier this month that even if the class action is successful and the injunction in Azar v. Garza essentially stays in place, things will go back to where they were under the Obama administration. Meaning: “If you are in a religiously affiliated shelter, you get kicked out for even asking for an abortion,” Amiri said.

Susan Hays is the former legal director of Jane’s Due Process, one of the grassroots organizations that initially alerted the ACLU to the fact that young people in ORR custody were being denied access to care, even in instances of rape. The information led to Azar v. Garza, which is ongoing, but an injunction is currently in place allowing young people in ORR custody to access care.

“Perhaps it’s my paranoid mind or doing this work too long, but since the policy emerged from ORR that was trying to force migrants to have children, I’ve worried this was always about getting babies [away from migrants for adoption],” Hays told Rewire.News. “We have no idea if they are shuffling children around as quickly as possible so their parents can’t find them, and I frankly don’t believe the [Department of Homeland Security’s] claim that 500 children have been reunited with their families. We have no way of knowing if they’re actually making an effort to reunite families.”

In a written statement to Rewire.News, Bethany denied that any of the children in its custody would be put up for adoption, saying the agency “will not rest until every separated child in Bethany’s care is safely reunified with family.”

But the concerns of advocates like Hays are rooted in reality: Christian adoption agencies like Bethany have “a pattern and history of coercing women to relinquish their children,” as journalist Kathryn Joyce has reported.

Much like ORR’s director, Bethany has gone to great lengths to dissuade people from seeking abortions, raising questions about access to reproductive health services for migrant youths in their care, many of whom may be sexually assaulted en route to the United States.

As Rewire.News revealed in 2016, Bethany’s particular efforts to cajole patients out of ending their pregnancies have included hiring an ad firm to target “abortion-minded women” by sending ads for Bethany to their smartphones while they are sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics.

But that’s just scratching the surface of its long and complicated history. Here’s what we know.

1. Bethany has several federal contracts.

Despite speaking out against the Trump administration’s treatment of refugees, the Christian adoption agency has announced plans to expand its foster care operations as a result of President Trump’s policy of separating families at the border. As of June 19, Bethany had reportedly placed nearly 100 migrant children in foster homes in Maryland and Michigan.

The organization was initially approved by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees as part of its resettlement program in Michigan in 1998. However, in 2016, Bethany was approved to “provide refugee resettlement and refugee youth foster care services” in Pennsylvania, according to the agency’s site.

Indeed, the agency has a wide variety of federal contracts, with millions in annual revenue coming from government-funded programs. It offers refugee and immigrant foster care, resettlement, and unaccompanied children reunification. Bethany has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars as a participant in the federal Family & Youth Services Bureau’s “Sexual Risk Avoidance Education Program,” an abstinence-only education program that targets Latinx and Black youth ages 14-to-19.

2. Bethany has a record of coercive adoption practices.

Last year, 17-year-old Alex Robinson gave birth at a Catholic hospital in Muskegon, Michigan. Robinson had been on a beach trip with friends and did not realize she was pregnant until she went into labor. While her mother was five hours away in Illinois, a counselor told Robinson she could give the baby up for adoption without anyone knowing, according to a local news report.

Within a few hours of the birth, a Bethany representative was at the hospital with adoption paperwork. But after returning home, Robinson changed her mind. She ultimately had to fight Bethany in court to regain custody of her child.

“They exploited her,” Robinson’s mother, Leah McDonald, told the news team Local 4 Defenders. “You know, they took advantage of her because they wanted her baby.”

This was not an isolated incident for Bethany.

The agency’s 2017 tax forms show it provided “pregnancy counseling services protecting unborn children” to “3,078 expectant parents” under its domestic adoption program.

But such counseling often amounts to coercion, as journalist Kathryn Joyce, author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, has reported.

“They come on really pro-life: look at the baby, look at its heartbeat, don’t kill it,” one woman, whom Joyce called Carol Jordan, recalled of her experience with Bethany in South Carolina in 1999. “Then, once you say you won’t kill it, they ask, What can you give it? You have nothing to offer, but here’s a family that goes on a cruise every year.”

Jordan told Joyce that Bethany isolated her by sending her to stay with one of its “shepherding families,” where she felt “like a walking uterus for the agency.”

When Jordan had second thoughts about the adoption after delivering her baby, a Bethany counselor brought the prospective adoptive parents, sobbing, into her recovery room.

“The counselor warned Jordan that if she persisted, she’d end up homeless and lose the baby anyway,” Joyce wrote.

Bethany declined to respond directly to concerns about its record of coercive practices.

3. Bethany has a record of discriminating against LGBTQ couples.

In March, Philadelphia announced it had halted adoptions through Bethany following reports the agency refused to work with same-sex couples who wanted to be foster parents. In Michigan, one of the states where Bethany is caring for migrant children separated from their families by the Trump administration, same-sex couples sued the state last year for contracting with Bethany and other agencies that turn away prospective adoptive and foster parents because of their sexual orientation. Bethany had lobbied Michigan to pass legislation in 2015 allowing such agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples under the guise of religion.

At least nine states have passed such measures, five of them since last year. Of the states where migrant children have been placed, at least five have passed such provisions allowing discrimination.

“Bethany is part of this wider movement of organizations pushing to enshrine the right to discriminate into law—an effort that has gained widespread success under Trump,” Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire.News vice president of law and the courts said.

4. Bethany has benefited from figures within the Trump administration.

Bethany has a massive reach, with an annual revenue of more than $98 million, millions of which comes from government-funded programs, tax filings show.

Among the lawmakers who have directed public funding to Bethany is Vice President Mike Pence. As governor of Indiana, Pence shifted funds intended for low-income families in the state to a crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization, Real Alternatives, that subcontracted with Bethany Christian Services, Rewire.News reporter Jenn Stanley reported.

The agency has also benefited from the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation donated $25,000 to Bethany in 2015 and 2016, while the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation outlined $2.5 million in planned and executed donations to Bethany in its 2016 filing alone.

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