Poster Paper: Religious Exemptions in American Foster Care and Adoption: What's the Effect on Youth Well-Being?

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Exhibit Hall C - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Brandon Ranallo-Benavidez, American University

Background: Seven states have enacted religious exemptions which protect state-licensed child welfare agencies from reprisal when they refuse to contravene their sincerely-held religious beliefs in the provision of child-placing services. Proponents assert these laws will produce more licensed agencies (because of religious organizations no longer fearing being sued) and will result in better outcomes for youth in the public welfare system. Moreover, supporters argue more foster or adoptive parents will now be recruited into the expanding system. Conversely, opponents argue that these laws will decrease placement capacity because more prospective adults (e.g., LGBTQ, those of religious—or non-religious—views that do not match the agency, cohabitating, divorced, etc.) will be turned away by these organizations than will be induced into recruitment. These concerns are being debated in 19 other state legislatures, as of this writing, deliberating on instituting similar religious exemption laws in their states.
Hypotheses: Proponents’ on-the-record statements are utilized to create these directional hypotheses. (1) Religious exemptions legislation will increase the placement capacity (i.e., the number of available foster care and/or adoptive home beds) by inducing religious organizations to begin or bolster recruiting efforts. (2) Religious exemptions will produce better outcomes (e.g., fewer moves, shorter waiting periods between entry and permanent placement, quicker adoption finalization, etc.) for youth. (3) Religious exemptions will reduce per youth expenditures. (4) Religious exemptions will be increasingly beneficial as proportions of religious adherents increases.
Data: These analyses will utilize multiple data sources. First, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Foster Care File data for FY1998-2016. Second, the AFCARS Adoption File data for FY2000-2016. Both AFCARS files are curated by federal HHS. Third, from county-level data made available to the author by the Virginia Department of Social Services and its satellite local DSS offices as per FOIA requests. Fourth, ACS and other Census data for socio-demographic factors on the state and county level. Finally, the Association of Religion Data Archives file for county-level religiosity measures.
Methods: Cross-sectional, time-series data methods with either state-year fixed effects and a difference-in-differences estimator (for the AFCARS files), or county-year fixed effects (for the Virginia FOIA data) will be used. In the nationwide set, comparing states with these religious exemption laws to those without will provide crucial insight for policy makers on the generalizability of the policy. Second, the within-state county-level results will allow a novel study of exactly which counties are predicted to be most and least aided by such policies, highlighting key strengths and weaknesses of the policy under varying contextual factors—urbanicity, population density, racial makeup, socioeconomic profile, relative religiosity, partisan leaning, average education level, size of adult self-identified LGBTQ population, etc.
Contribution: This research will provide an evidence-based analytical grounding for what is now a largely normative ongoing debate on child welfare, family formation, and vulnerable youth’s lives.