Faith-based foster care program gets federal waiver

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GREENVILLE, SC (WSPA) – Miracle Hill Ministries will continue to recruit only Christian – and specifically Protestant – families to its foster care program.

“If the only thing threatened had been our funding, our contract, we wouldn’t have fought as hard. But what was threatened was our right to exist,” said Miracle Hill Ministries President/CEO Reid Lehman. “It is about the children.” 

After starting in 1988, Miracle Hill Ministries says its foster care program now has 200 families housing abused, neglected, or abandoned children placed in homes by the state department of social services.

“We are a community of faith joyfully serving Jesus Christ and proclaiming his love and forgiveness and so we’re seeking people who are like minded to work with us in the foster care program,” said Lehman. “Our job is to recruit as many families as possible – as many as we can support – and to provide that ongoing support so they can flourish as foster homes. We let them [DSS] know of the possible matches, we don’t actually place the child. The DSS places the child with a family that they think is a right match.” 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the previous administration implemented a new regulation adding various new requirements before President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Miracle Hill said the federal law made it illegal for foster care agencies to discriminate based on religion, risking Miracle Hill’s funding and the license DSS requires for agencies.

“What we’ve always been concerned about was the right to exist,” said Lehman. “Yes, we receive some reimbursement from the department of social services for the services we provide but we provided those services for many years with no reimbursement.”

Miracle Hill has since been operating under a temporary license. 

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster requested Miracle Hill and other religious entities be exempted from the new federal law and the Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that it’s granting that waiver.

“We have approved South Carolina’s request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children,” said Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally-protected right to practice their faith through good works.”

Several Democratic leaders from the U.S. House condemned the waiver. 

“I have stood against discrimination my entire career, and this waiver is unlawful discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation,” said U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina). “The real tragedy of this situation is that federal funding is being used to keep children out of loving homes.”

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty spoke out against the waiver as well. 

“We saw this waiver as a dramatic and troubling shift because the waiver shows more concern for the providers than the children in need and the willing foster parents,” said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Lehman said those responses are disheartening. 

“It breaks my heart that they would frame it that way because it’s not,” said Lehman. “We recognize the rights of anyone to become a foster family and in our part of the upstate there are 8 other agencies they can partner with including the Department of Social Services directly. South Carolina needs foster families so greatly, it’s about making as many families as possible available to serve those children. So if someone doesn’t fit with maybe our particular screen we’re glad to help them find another agency they can work with.”

U.S. Senator Tim Scott and U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan both praised the decision.

“It is a great day for South Carolina, religious liberty, and all foster-care kids across the Palmetto State. We should ensure that federal regulations do not discriminate against faith-based organizations like South Carolina’s Miracle Hill, that only seek to give thousands of children across our state a family and a place to call home,” said Senator Scott. 

Lehman said state and federal leaders have helped along the way. 

Lehman said there are about 4,000 children in foster care statewide, and South Carolina is still about 1,000 families short. 
 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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