What’s Going On In Philly’s Foster Care System?

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Last month, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services launched a new advertising and recruitment campaign for new foster families. Local media widely reported the “urgent” need for hundreds of new foster parents in the city.

In Philadelphia, DHS partners with private organizations that receive a mixture of public and private funds and do the hard work of licensing foster parents and actually placing children in safe homes. The foster care system is a patchwork of public and private actors that would collapse without the time, money, and effort of public-spirited citizens. Your tax dollars don’t take care of everything.

One of the news articles profiled a family licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Bethany is one of the agencies the city sends foster care referrals to. It licenses foster parents and places kids in homes. A feel good story. But a few days later reports emerged that last fall Bethany had refused to license a same sex couple for foster care. In response, the city suspended foster care placements at Bethany and Catholic Social Services, which also refuses to license same sex couples.

Ok, you’re caught up on the basic story. I have a few thoughts.

–This is deeply personal for us. We are licensed through Bethany Christian Services. Workers from Catholic Social Services and Bethany have been in our home literally dozens of times. They made Gabe’s adoption possible.

–I am embarrassed to say that I not only didn’t know about Bethany’s policy toward same sex families; I hadn’t even thought about it. I strongly disagree with Bethany’s discriminatory policy. Yet, I did not bother to proactively research this question, nor have I been working for change from the inside. I am complicit.

–The city’s response to this is cowardly. Some reports said that DHS has “discovered” that two of its contracting agencies discriminate. This is simply not true. The only thing that’s changed is that the public now knows about it. So the city has suspended long-running partnerships in an effort to be on the right side of an explosive political issue.

–What about the kids? No one looks good in this fight. The ACLU, the agencies, the city—all talk about what’s best for the children. Bethany cares for LGBT youth, but what message is Bethany sending when it won’t entrust them to LGBT adults? It is discriminatory and pernicious. But for the city, this is all politics. If this was a move with the best interests of kids in mind, DHS would move as quickly as possible to non-discriminatory partnerships without reducing the number of foster homes available to Philadelphia children. Instead, after making an “urgent” call for more foster parents, the city has suddenly drastically reduced the number of foster placements available.

–Let me give you a personal window into how chaotic this decision is. We’re licensed by Bethany. Our renewal is coming up in May. I have no idea if we should renew with Bethany. I have no idea if we can renew with another agency. Would we, instead, have to start back at square one and do the whole months-long process from the beginning with a new agency? I have no idea if or when Bethany may start taking referrals again. Does DHS have plans in place to make up for the lost capacity? Does DHS have any guidance for foster families licensed by Bethany and CSS who are ready to receive children? What am I supposed to do? Hello DHS?

–If you don’t want conservative Christian organizations to be involved in the provision of public goods, you had better get off the sidelines. Give your money away. Give your time. Build new institutions. I don’t want these conservative Christian organizations to discriminate. But I also don’t know if you understand the dystopia we’d be living in if they stopped all their work tomorrow.

–I’m sure I’m not seeing the whole picture, but from where I sit the idea that DHS is prioritizing the well-being of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable children doesn’t even pass the laugh test. In this time of rapid social change (Remember when Obama campaigned as an opponent of gay marriage?) we need a generous pluralism. The cause of gay rights is winning and will win. In a battle over foster care, the children are the very last people who should be caught in the crossfire.

Suggestions for the Next Monument to a Black Philadelphian

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A crowd celebrates the unveiling of the new Octavius Catto statue outside City Hall. September 26, 2017. Photo by Helen Armstrong.

Here’s how out of the loop I am. I was shocked to learn that Philadelphia’s new statue to 19th century African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto is the first monument to an African American on public land in Philadelphia. To put that in perspective, there are hundreds of statues on public land.

I honestly didn’t know who Octavius Catto was. I’m glad he’s getting some well-deserved recognition. For background, listen to today’s Radio Times.

So this got me thinking. Who should be memorialized next? Off the top of my head, here are some worthy figures who were either native Philadelphians or had a significant Philly connection:

Absolom Jones

Richard Allen

William Still

Harriet Tubman

Cecil B. Moore

I’m sure there are many, many others. Who would you nominate?

If I wasn’t a historian who thinks even nasty stuff should be preserved (in museums) I’d say maybe we could melt down the Rizzo statue and recast it in the form of one of these more appropriate figures.

Notes from the classroom: Immigrants Have Always Seemed Threatening

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For my Immigration and the American Dream class tomorrow I’ll be giving a lecture I’m calling “Bible Wars.” In the nineteenth century, controversies about Bible reading in public schools were often flashpoints for tension—and even violence—between native-born Protestants and immigrant Catholics.

Perhaps most famously, a dispute about the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in Philadelphia schools led to days of deadly violence here in the spring and summer of 1844. The danger in relating these stories is that students might find them inscrutable and absurd. Why were Protestants and Catholics killing each other, here in the U.S.? They must have been irrationally prejudiced, the student might conclude. Now, surely, we’ve become more sophisticated.

But if I’m able to provoke the students to think historically, they might begin to be able to see why Catholics might have seemed so threatening. They might begin to see that amid the prejudices were real disagreements about church and state, about education, about the very meaning of freedom (I’ll be leaning heavily on McGreevey tomorrow). Throw in the transnational context of the Irish famine and the Revolutions of 1848 and the vast numbers of immigrants we’re talking about—many of them not English-speaking—and we can begin to see, perhaps, why the influx was so unsettling.

If they can begin to understand this historical context, the parallels to the present day will announce themselves. I won’t even need to say it out loud. The historian Tyler Anbinder had a nice piece about this last week:

Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not “press two for Spanish” or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture. Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart.[1] Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. “I didn’t need it,” one New Yorker explained. “Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians . . . I had to learn some Sicilian, though.”[2] When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.[3]

Some think that the religious beliefs of today’s immigrants pose an unprecedented threat to American values. Muslim immigrants, it is said, cannot be good Americans because they owe ultimate allegiance to foreign leaders and seek to impose their religious views on others. But Americans once said precisely the same things about Catholic immigrants. A Pennsylvania newspaper 150 years ago likened Catholic immigrants to a foreign army in our midst, waiting for the Pope’s command to destroy Americans’ most valued institutions.[4] Catholics would always remain foreign and separate from the rest of society, insisted an Ohioan. They cannot “really [be] Americans, but only residents in America.”[5] That every immigrant group viewed this way in the past has become an accepted part of the national fabric suggests that American Muslims will one day be fully accepted too.

Anbinder’s new book on immigrant New York is a great read by the way.