Framed in Bigotry and Discrimination: A Look at Trump’s Executive Order: Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for photographs with a pair of babies during a campaign rally, Friday, July 29, 2016, in Colorado Springs, Colo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

On June 24, Donald Trump issued an Executive Order under the title, Strengthening the Child Welfare System for America’s Children. Except for those whom the EO affects, it has already been stuffed down the Trump memory hole. t is, however, an important document with negative far-reaching ramifications for child welfare in the US. Its an important document with dangerous consequences for child welfare, fostercare, and adoption, as well as just how the government works and who controls it. It is not about child welfare. It is about special interests and a widening of “religious” interference in secular government.

To the casual reader, the Executive Order can look benign, positive: a plan for expanded federal child welfare assistance programs to enhance sibling retention, family preservation, family unification, permanency, aging out, as well as strengthener trauma-informed training and best practice and better reporting standards. It appears to concede a fractured child welfare system, but…

Despite some good points, a studied read proves just the opposite. The Executive Order is a blueprint for an eventual “faith-based” usurpation of the US child welfare system and an overall de-secularization of government and its services. The order is not about genuine structural improvement. It is a game of musical chairs that maintains the current racist/misogynist/classist child commodification system sweetened by a massive injection of nice-sounding “faith-based”—read evangelical—collaboration.

The White House Phone Call

Accompanying the Executive Order was an open conference call between Nicholas D. Pottlebaum, Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director, White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and stakeholders and interested parties. The call was a perfunctory attempt to assure interested parties that they had a voice in Executive Order implementation, but it is clear that the White House is running roughshod over the very people it pretends to serve.
The takeaways from the call indicate that the discussion was quite different from the benign language in the Executive Order

Here are the takeaways (my emphasis):
• This order increases the role of faith-based organizations in placing children in adoptive homes.
• Officials insinuated that since houses of worship are able to provide oversight and support to families who foster and adopt children, that they would be given preference over families who do not belong to a particular faith community
• Promises protections to faith-based organizations, to ensure states work with these faith-based groups and don’t discriminate against them for acting in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs
An allusion to a stepped-up marketing campaign that will portray adoptive families as heroes, publicize Safe Haven laws and probably indirectly discourage abortion.

State-“Faith-Based” Partnerships

The emphasis in the Executive Order is not some abstract improvement, but the creation of a robust evangelical-coded “faith-based” equalization in child welfare that protects religious-based discriminatory practices. The EO promises to increase much-needed child welfare improvement through taxpayer-funded tax-exempt so-called “faith-based” partnerships with private religious child welfare organizations and corporations including churches, para-churches, and ministries. Moreover, the EO promises “faith-based foster and adoption recruitment” suggesting nonsensically that the lack of “faith-based partnerships” keeps children stuck in state foster care when they could be transferred to the Christian adoption market if that market were more open and available.

When I read the Executive Order, I was reminded immediately of a defunct church-run adoption agency in Georgia. Among its many eccentricities, the agency required its clients to sign a contract with God promising not to sue the agency if something went wrong. Unfortunately for the agency and one of its client couples, it did, and the agency was charged under Civil RICO as well as in civil court for a series of deceptive practices involving an adoption. Then, I was reminded of the Jackson, Mississippi, office of Bethany Christian Services (operated by the off-brand Presbyterian Church in America) that got in trouble a few years ago after the director refused to take on a Catholic couple as a client because “Catholics aren’t Christians.”

Another concern is the impact on foster care, especially the EO‘s implication of quicker transfer from foster care to the adoption market and probably a speed-up of adoptions in general. Instead of helping children already in the system, the order and its supporters suggest the Trump administration intends to create an influx of new cases.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar explains:

Since the President took office, we have focused on promoting adoption unlike any previous administration, and we’ve begun to see results. The President’s executive order lays out bold reforms for our work with states, communities, and faith-based partners to build a brighter future for American kids who are in foster care or in crisis.

Increased evangelical presence in foster care also brings up the question of treatment of kids in state systems that are routinely subjected to evangelical coercion, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as has been reported repeatedly in the news by victims, police and social workers. Especially scary is the treatment of queer and trans kids who will be sent to these evangelical foster homes (and perhaps adopted) where they can not only subject to coercion and abuse but to potential conversion therapy to unqueer them.


While the Executive Order appears to address foster-adoption procedures and promotion and not newborn adoption, that’s not how the evangelical Christian media see it,, Students for Life, Intercessors for America, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Christian Post, Catholic News Agency, and Crux, all ran articles after the release of the order, that were linked by numerous anti-abortion and evangelical sites praising by content or implication what they perceive as Trump’s volley against abortion and push for Christian adoption—even though abortion has nothing to do with fostercare and has had virtually no effect on newborn adoption rates for decades.“

Pro-life” and pro-newborn stranger adoption advocates clearly see the Executive Order as a mechanism to decrease abortion and harvest newborns for the adoption mill (sometimes connected to their own anti-abortion “ministries”) and that will undoubtedly create a new or larger funding stream for their anti-abortion and forced birth work.
Thomas Glessner, president of National Institute of Family and Life Advocate, which provides support for fake clinics declared:

… we cannot talk about the end of abortion in America without mentioning adoption as a solution,A America’s adoptive parents are heroes. We applaud President Donald Trump’s executive order strengthening the U.S. child welfare system as a major step toward achieving this goal.
Adoptee Rights

Adoptee Rights

The Executive Order is the codification of discrimination due to race, sex, gender, class, and religion. This government-created hothouse of faith-based corporations creates a system of white Christian supremacy that can affect adoption reform including the restoration of the right of adopted people to their birth and adoption records, histories, and identities.
Evangelical-and anti-abortion opposition to the restoration of records access in most states, is currently the chief enemy of the adoptee rights movement.

Adult adoptees, however, are one of the favorite props of the anti-abortion movement. They are portrayed as objects “saved from the abortion mill”–until they demand their original birth certificates and adoption legal records, then they are scapegoated as “Planned Parenthood dupes” and “baby killers.” This is the routine at legislative hearings and social media when adoptees appear:

• Do you hate babies?
• Do you want babies to die?
• Do you wish you’d been aborted?
• Don’t you already have parents?
• Just be grateful you weren’t raised in a trailer park or by junkies, drunks and abusers.
And the new silencing question popular with forced birthers and adopters on Adoptee Twitter when they are confronted by critical and anti-adoption adoptees:
• Why don’t you kill yourself?

Even if what “pro-lifers” claim is true, that records access causes abortion (which it is not), so what? This is the same language we hear about Black Lives Matter, same-sex marriage, and any other social justice issue, but is never explained by spouting self-righteous fragile fanatics except to whine about “special rights.” How does equal treatment for a marginalized group harm the equal treatment enjoyed by the non-marginalized? Laws cannot be based on speculation.

While the major concern of the Adoptee Rights Movement is the reactionary influence on records access we should not forget the White House discussion regarding Safe Haven (moral?) support. Of serious concern is the growth of the Safe Haven Baby Box ministry (and yes, baby boxes are billed as a ministry) backed by evangelicals and Catholic organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, where women simultaneously deemed homicidal but “brave” and loving” hero moms are urged to anonymously abandon their “unwanted newborns” in a hole-in-the-wall depository at fire stations and hospitals. SHBB founder Monica Kelsey claims that “women demand anonymity” but never proves why. She has posted on the organization’s Facebook page that boxes will be needed throughout the country after Roe is overturned (as she sure it will be) to furnish the herd of secret new mothers forced to conceal carry pregnancies to term when abortion services go away. I have strong doubts about the reversal of Roe and nationwide box popularity if that happens. but cobbling together a new generation of adoptees, out of shame-fueled convenience is extremely troubling, misogynistic, and adopteephobic.

Child Welfare or Bigotry and Discrimination?

The Executive Order, praised by an incurious press and its talking heads, as well as neo-liberal big-salary child welfare bureaucrats, see it (or pretend to see it) as a sincere attempt to mend an unmendable child welfare system. Taking the words of the EO at face value, they conveniently overlook how the “faith-based mandate, is rooted in “sincerely held” religious free boot bigotry.

The primary purpose of the EO is not child welfare. It is another blatant pander to Trump’s base by executive-ordering” legalized “ freedom-of-conscience” discrimination against LBGTQ+, BIPOC, religious minorities, non-believers, “liberals,” and anyone else that any given church crowd doesn’t like so they can expand their growing base of control in governmental affairs (Remember Jackson Mississippi Bethany Christian Services.) It enables faith corporations to loot the public treasury, and transfer/traffick children into “preferable” social situations that can lead to religious indoctrination, evangelical church growth, and in the long-run political power.

The Catholic media’s vocal interest in the Executive Order suggests that it hopes to get back in to the lucrative adoption business it was kicked out of a few years ago due to its ban on gay and lesbian adoptions through Catholic Charities. Of course, Christian agencies in general will slurp up the tax-payer trough. Bethany Christian Services, currently handling the fostering and potential adoption of many of the non-accompanied children and border kids who have been left temporary orphans by the Trump administration, issued a press release praising the order. According to their 2017 990 return, ( latest available on Guidestar--free account required). Bethany netted over $38 million that reporting year. To make it more interesting, Bethany has strong ties to the DeVos family. The super-agency has also historically opposed adoptee rights to records.

Nationally recognized child welfare /foster/adoptee rights advocate Maureen Flatley, warns just how dangerous implementation of the Executive Order could be. (Posted on private Facebook group page and posted here with permission):

[The Executive Order} will dramatically contract the pool of available parents, unleash rampant discrimination of many kinds and pull the trigger on baby grabs to TPR “new” kids before addressing the 100K existing backlog. As we saw w/ the Catholic Church abuse cases, putting churches in charge of “oversight” is a recipe for disaster. Finally, the history of child welfare is replete w/ countless stories of incompetence and abuse by faith-based programs. This order seems to contain positive things. However, to the extent, the program is built on a platform that encourages bigotry and arbitrary limits on recruitment based on “faith” it will have a devastating impact on waiting children. ….“it takes us back to 1955.”

What’s Next

Implement ion of the Executive Order could depend on the outcome of Fulton v City of Philadelphia, an upcoming case before the US Supreme Court, regarding Catholic Social Services claim that they have a religious-exemption right to refuse certification of households headed by same-sex partners. (Also see ACLU press release). The ruling has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and may not come down until next year. The decision could affect voluntary “faith-based” partnership decisions and procedures.

The Executive Order (along with concomitant legal and policy mischief not included (here for example.) can have a tremendous negative effect on current and future child welfare, church-state relations, and anti-discrimination laws, policy, and practice. It is not a fluke. It is designed to create and continue an unfair discriminatory policy and practice that privileges financial, racial, and gendered  privileged, and to bolster Trump’s “conservative” base,

But, Executive Orders come and go as presidential administrations change. As long as this EO continues to be framed in benevolence rather than bigotry, however, it will stay because it props up sentimental mythology about children “in crisis.”—unwanted, abandoned, neglected, abused – without delving deeper into reality by addressing the causes and so-called remedies. Some of the mandates are positive on paper, but they are just words to weaponize discrimination. Genuine changes need to be accomplished, not by presidential fiat but by the creation of new non- coercive care systems based in community, family preservation, economic justice, equal treatment under law, and the hard work of people who are affected by the broken system. Bureaucrats, propagandists, high-paid workers, religious bigots, ideologues, and politicians need not apply.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Columbus Free Press, July 22, 2020

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