Imagine you’re a child and you lost your mother at the supermarket. Now imagine you lost your mother four times.
That’s how Alec Mapa explains the situation his son, Zion, was in when he and his husband, Jamie Hebert, adopted him in January 2010. Zion had already been through four foster families. After being moved constantly from home to home, Mapa said Zion was already considered “unadoptable” at the age of 5.
“Nobody wants kids over the age of 3,” Mapa told Rewire.News. “Nobody wants a boy, and boys of color are the hardest kids to place.”
Zion had walking pneumonia, asthma, and malnutrition because of health issues that were difficult to address when he kept being moved to new households. He has since been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The first day that Zion came to their home, Mapa and Hebert took a picture of him. He looked like a 70-year-old, whose exhausted eyes were heavy with the trauma he had experienced at too young an age.
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But Mapa and Hebert saw the person that Zion could become with a little love and stability. They went to the playground every morning and watched Thomas the Tank Engine together as a family.
“Three weeks later we took a picture of him again,” Mapa said. “His eyes were electric. He was alive because he finally got to be a carefree kid.”
According to Mapa, there are around 442,000 children like Zion in the U.S. foster system. But he and other advocates are worried that a new policy proposed by the Trump administration might make it harder for kids in need of loving families. Last week, Axios reported that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is considering the repeal of Obama-era policies that ban adoption and foster care agencies from receiving federal funding if they refuse to work with LGBTQ couples.
An alternate HHS proposal would exempt faith-based care centers from the nondiscrimination policies. Earlier this year, HHS’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) granted an individual waiver to a South Carolina foster care agency, Miracle Hill, which wished to turn away Jewish, Catholic, and same-sex families. On Thursday, a same-sex couple who had been denied the opportunity to foster filed a lawsuit against Miracle Hill and HHS, among other defendants.
Although details on the scope of the new proposals are scant, the White House is currently debating which method “would hold up better in court,” according to Axios.
The timing of the report was not an accident, according to Julie Kruse, director of federal policy for the Family Equality Council. The policy proposals were leaked the Friday before Memorial Day, as many people in the United States were heading out of the office for the three-day weekend. While the potential rollback of nondiscrimination protections for trans people in health care was headline news in CNN and the New York Times just days earlier, few outlets picked up the Axios story.
The Trump administration effectively attempted to “bury” the anti-LGBTQ adoption proposals over a holiday “when no one would see it,” Kruse said.
“It’s red meat for their base, but they know that two-thirds of Americans oppose discrimination by taxpayer-funded agencies in adoption,” Kruse told Rewire.News, referring to 2017 survey findings by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Those findings also showed that a significant portion of Trump’s base doesn’t support the right to turn away same-sex adoptive couples: 53 percent of Republicans believe all couples should be allowed to adopt without discrimination.
“This is not a popular policy, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’re trying to hide it,” she said.
While the Trump administration has claimed that religious adoption and foster care agencies are “substantially burdened” by federal policies forcing them to place children in same-sex households, critics say it’s youth that would be most profoundly harmed by either version of the HHS proposal.
“This is a culture war and it’s being raised on child welfare,” Voice for Adoption Interim Executive Director Schylar Baber told Rewire.News. “When we take children into our care, we should be doing everything we can to do what’s in the best interest of the child.”
As a former foster kid, Baber knows how important it is for children to be placed in loving homes. He entered the foster care system at the age of six after being removed from his “physically, emotionally and sexually abusive” family in Montana. By the age of 18, he had been through 11 foster homes, two group homes, and two residential treatment facilities, in addition to about 50 respite homes—facilities intended to provide a weekend home for youth when their foster families need a short break.
Instead of being provided with the care he needed, Baber says he experienced more “abuse and neglect from foster care” than he did in his biological family.
At the age of 16, Baber was housed with an evangelical woman who forced him into so-called conversion therapy. Every day after school, he went to see a pastor at the local church for one-on-one counseling. He was taught that he has a “demon” in his soul and that’s what caused him to be gay. If he accepted the demon, then he would go to hell, and so would anyone who supported him or loved him. These sessions lasted three to four hours, three days a week.
“As I was going through conversion therapy, I didn’t realize how traumatic it was,” he said. “I was starting to hate myself because I knew that if I wanted to go to heaven, I had to listen to this guy.”
Baber said policies like those proposed by the Trump administration may “trickle down” into greater discrimination against other LGBTQ foster youth on the basis of religion. Allowing placement agencies to “inflict their own values and judgments” on children in their care could permit them to deny hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to a young trans person who has already begun transitioning, he suggested, leading to negative health and psychological impacts.
“This can open up the door for a whole slew of things,” Baber said.
As the Trump administration reportedly weighs moving forward with what critics say is a “license to discriminate” in adoption, LGBTQ groups have already begun fighting back. Earlier this month, Mapa joined Karamo Brown of Netflix’s Queer Eye and U.S. Reps. John Lewis (D-GA), Angie Craig (D-MN), and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) to push for the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit federally funded child welfare agencies from discriminating on the basis of LGBTQ identity.
Mapa knows what it means for children like his son to find their forever homes. Zion, now 14 years old, is a composer, an athlete, and a straight-A student soon to enter high school. This summer he will be juggling boxing lessons with DJ camp, but the day Mapa spoke with Rewire.News over the phone, the family had just finished eating breakfast together. Today’s menu was oatmeal with peanut butter and bananas.
Mapa wants other children to have the same opportunity that Zion has had: the chance to love and be loved without fear of what tomorrow will bring. That’s exactly what he said the Trump administration is trying to prevent.
“What discrimination does is it keeps qualified parents from creating forever families that keeps the kids in the system longer,” he said. “The research has shown that LGBTQ people are seven times more likely to foster and adopt, and we’re more likely to adopt kids that are hard to place.”
“I’m used to discrimination,” Mapa continued. “I’m a 53-year-old gay man, so this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. I have tough skin, but I’m heartbroken because [the HHS proposals] hurt the kids in the system. They deserve better. They deserve a system that works for them, not against them.”