When I Wanted to Adopt Kids, the Agency Asked About My Religious Beliefs. What Would You Have Done?

Last week’s guest post by Veronica Chenik Gilmore, about her adopted children, held special significance for me.

My daughters, now 11 and 9 (that’s them, posing for my camera), are adopted too.

My wife and I worked through an international adoption agency, Gladney, that is at least nominally Christian, having been founded by a Methodist minister more than a hundred years ago. I wasn’t aware of this at the start, and wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. All that mattered to me was that the agency was staffed with experienced, caring, competent, and fair people. And it was. I have nothing but abundant praise for our case workers and everyone else up and down Gladney’s chain of command.

Throughout the years-long process, there was just one hiccup that had to do with religion.

Gladney asked us to submit letters of reference from friends and relatives; understandably, the agency was trying to make sure we’d make good parents. So a half dozen kind people who know us well attested to our sparkling characters. They basically wrote that yes, we can be trusted not to smoke crack around our kids, and that our idea of a good time does not involve the reckless discharge of firearms in brothels, gambling parlors, or children’s nurseries.

So what was the hiccup?

The agency’s “International Reference Letter Request for Adoptive Couple” asked the prospective letter writers to address nine points about us, including this one:

“Do they attend synagogue/church, to what extent do they participate in religious activities, and do they practice their beliefs in their daily lives?”

Come again?

The other eight questions the agency wanted answered indubitably helped gauge our fitness for parenthood. Whether we’re emotionally stable is important to our adoptive kids’ welbeing. I get that — I want the agency to ask about that. The same goes for the safety and cleanliness of our home, our financial security, whether we have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, and so on.

But the religion question stood out for its utter irrelevance. Whether or not I believe in a higher being, and whether or not I frequent a house of worship, is a terrible predictor of what kind of parent I’ll be. To suggest otherwise is to disparage the tens of millions of Americans who do not subscribe to a theist worldview.

From what I could gather, though, Gladney didn’t ask about religious beliefs as a litmus test. We probably wouldn’t get turned down if our frequency of church visits was found wanting. But that only reinforced my point. If the question of an adoptive parent’s religion has no bearing on whether — or how — the agency proceeds with the application, that question is of zero practical use. Its only effect is to mark the beliefs of theists as moral, while suggesting that everyone else falls short.

So, with plenty of trepidation, I wrote Gladney’s president and board a letter, politely laying out my objections.

That was nine years ago this month. While I awaited a reply, I kept wondering if, for the sake of marital peace and for the sake of the orphaned girls whose parents we hoped to become, I should have kept my piehole shut.

Then, one day, I received a phone call from Gladney’s VP of adoption services, who was gracious and understanding — and convinced.

“Sometimes it takes somebody on the outside to look at what you’re doing, and ask why you’re doing it,” he said. He added that the agency staff had discussed the matter; jointly, they concluded that the religion question served no purpose. “We’re going to redesign that part of the application, and drop that question,” he promised.

And they really did. Since it’s probably good to “trust, but verify,” I recently asked Gladney to send me the same (current) form, without divulging what I wanted it for. I’m happy to report that the religion question is indeed no longer on the list. And I’m even happier to say that my atheism didn’t affect the agency’s entrusting us with two beautiful, bright, and fun-loving little girls who needed a mom and dad.

Speaking up as an agnostic or an atheist has certain dangers, and uncertain rewards.

But remember this: If you don’t take risks, paradoxically, you could risk even more.

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Have you thought about adopting? Got questions you think I could answer? I’d be happy to. Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me at terryxfirma at gmail dot com.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.

  • Sven2547

    So, with plenty of trepidation, I wrote Gladney’s president and board a letter, politely laying out my objections.

    You are much more brave than I.

  • Alexis

    Lurker here, with a hypothetical question: Could this question have been intended in the opposite way? As in, asking about potential parents’ religious involvement to ensure the child won’t be placed with a fundamentalist family which would do more harm than good?

  • Richard Thomas

    Theoretically? Sure.
    Likely? Doubtful.

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    There’s no reason it can’t be both. A social worker or adoption officer (or the agency they work for) could harbor equally unfavorable opinions of atheists and of religious fundamentalists, and use such a question to weed out both.

    Which only underlines, the issue with things that appropriately fall into the category of “none of your business” being made someone’s business is that they can be put to all sort of discriminatory uses, which particular one only depending on the personal prejudices of the person who has access to the information they shouldn’t have.

  • baal

    Were I working in an adoption agency and I saw that the potential parents were members of the beat your children sects of christianity, I’d black list them.

  • Guest

    This is actually the case with me. (I’m a regular member here but will post as guest because I don’t necessarily want everyone on the internet knowing this about me)

    Many years ago, when I was younger I had to give a child up for adoption. I was able to ask the potential new parents questions, any questions I (we) wanted to help us make our decision.
    Religion definitely came up and in some depth. I asked open ended questions and never let on what side of the fence I was on.
    Obviously there a lot of concerns in parenting besides religion, but I wanted to at least eliminate any chances of child abuse by religious indoctrination.

    We settled on a couple that was religious as we felt they could give her the best life possible, but the kind of lip service moderate Christian people that go to church on religious holidays and when grandma visits.

    So yes. Religion has been used to screen people on both ends. We didn’t eliminate religion from our search, just the fanatics/insane ones.

  • dagnykight

    I admit that certain situations could find me somewhat conflicted as well! I know a devoutly Jewish couple who adopted a Chinese girl. It took them SIX YEARS to complete the adoption so these people are deeply committed! They gave her a name strongly identified as Jewish and they have immersed her in their Jewish traditions. They make no acknowledgement whatsoever of this child’s birth heritage but as her adoptive parents I assert that is their right. Still, I feel certain this young lady will eventually want to explore her own cultural origins and may seek to embrace them over the choices her adoptive parents made for her.

  • Terry Firma

    Considering Gladney’s strong Christian DNA, I doubt it, but it’s a fair point.

    “Ensure that a child won’t be placed with a fundamentalist family.” Define fundamentalist. The kind of fundamentalists who apply the teachings in “To Train Up a Child”? Then I wholeheartedly share your implied “no.” The kind who go to church weekly and pray before meals and believe that the Bible is the word of God? I have no overwhelming problems with that.

    In fact, if something were to happen to my wife and me, we’ve arranged for the kids to be raised further by her brother and his wife — an awesome couple who’ve raised four of their own kids to bright, kind, very motivated teenagers and young adults. Their household is Christian, and politically (moderately) conservative … and yet, I have no doubt that my girls will grown into adulthood there just fine, with loving guidance second only to our own, and probably not by much at that.

  • Neko

    Superb! And what beautiful girls!

  • Carmen

    So glad it worked out AND you changed some minds!

  • HappyGilmores

    Bravo Terry – so courageous!

    What happy girls!!

    I had no idea you were an adoptive parent. I am glad to stand beside you and other fellow atheists who decide to consider adoption; and challenge the guidelines set within. These religious questions do not prove any practical use, and obviously more agencies should follow suit…

    Again I encourage more humanists, agnostics, and atheists to join in the pool and consider adoption as a great way to create a family!

  • Spooky Tran

    Wonderful story, Terry, thank you.

  • crden

    Thank you for talking to them and asking them to change their process. I have not adopted, but my atheist brother and his wife have adopted two lovely children domestically and are fantastic with them.

  • eszett

    If the question of an adoptive parent’s religion has no bearing on whether — or how — the agency proceeds with the application, that question is of zero practical use.

    While the assumption is that such a question is always intended as a discrimination against non-believers, it may not always be the case.

    I don’t think you would want children to be adopted into a fanatic, ultra-religious family or say Jevohas Witnesses, who may refuse medical care or blood transfusions on religious grounds.

    So, I do think that the question of religion could be a reasonable one to ask. The issue is how is the answer interpreted.

  • HappyGilmores

    Two sides to that…

    Though I am sure there are religious discrimination events occurring
    within the religious spectrum; I don’t have any examples to decide if that is happening? I would think that maybe…perhaps it does.

    On the other hand, I have not seen an adoption agency turn away a prospective adoptive parent because the family was too religious or because they were not the right religion — Mormon, Jehovah witness etc… Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Adoption services for example are vetting prospective parents (and BM – Birth mothers) because they desire to see more religious people in their network doing good through “gods eyes” per se .

    These agencies are more concerned with the LGBT couples, and providing parents that exhibit the same beliefs that the agency represents. The minority, being the atheist parent is new to the radar. I would presume, but when identified – it is not always welcomed.

  • BeasKnees

    I would be interested to see how many children actually do get adopted into ultra-religious families vs. non-religious ones.

  • Seth Williamson

    I’m curious whether this was designed for the agency to prefilter/disqualify applicants or simply to flesh out a profile that birth parents review when participating in the selection process.

    If the later, I certainly understand birth parents can have a preference for their children to be raised in their faith (or lack thereof) so simply knowing what your faith is and how important it is to you is valuable information for the birth parents.

    Having been on the other side of the process when I was a teenager, I’ll tell you it was like searching for a needle in a haystack to find prospective adoptive parents for my child that were atheist and also had the other qualities we were looking for. The situation in the article complicated by using a religious agency, but I hope folks choose to be open and honest.

  • Terry Firma

    Can you share why you would only consider non-religious parents?

  • The Starship Maxima

    I can’t speak for Seth, but considering the lunatic Bible-quoting parents I had, I can certainly understand why someone would avoid them like the plague.

  • Wildcard

    I don’t understand why people who saw the world that way would decide to live to in a place they probably saw as a huge den of sin.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Hypocritical Christians and logic often don’t mix, my friend. If at all.

  • Wildcard

    Yeah but I’m not talking about the illogical decision from a moral perspective. From a personal one though what did they gain from living in a place with insanely high rent and property taxes, with people all around them who they would be hostile with, and Churches which probably didn’t agree with them. Why not live in a place as bible-thumping as they were,

  • joey_in_NC

    Can you share why you would only consider non-religious parents?

    I think it’s common sense that a parent would prefer to see their children raised in the same manner they would raise them. Even as someone who is religious, it just makes sense to me that non-religious people, who take their non-religiousness seriously (most frequent members of this blog), would seek out parents who are similarly non-religious to raise their child.

    I completely understand Seth’s post, even though I’m from the ‘other side’.

  • Carmen

    This is an interesting angle (sort of reminded me of the movie “Juno” when they take an ad out in the Pennysaver). In private adoptions the birth parents often want a say in who adopts, and many birth parents might not be willing to give up the child for adoption if they don’t get to choose the adoptive parents. Religious beliefs or lack thereof are relevant to that.

    Perhaps the better thing to do is where a birth parent has a strong preference one way or another, that could be communicated to the prospective adoptive parents (instead of a standard questionnaire).

  • Mario Strada

    It was nice reading this article. A change of pace from the ordinary stories we read when religious and non religious deal with each other.

  • joey_in_NC

    I greatly admire parents who adopt. Kudos.

    …two beautiful, bright, and fun-loving little girls who needed a mom and dad.

    I’m surprised no one yet has picked on the wording of this sentence.

  • Terry Firma

    Mom and dad applies to my family and my heterosexual marriage. I’m 100% OK with kids getting adopted by screened and approved same-sex couples.

  • joey_in_NC

    Thanks for the clarification. Though, you have to admit that one reading this post without knowing at all about your background would question your position.

    …and approved same-sex couples.

    I’m curious, but how do you feel about single-parent adoption? The question isn’t entirely off subject. Assuming a single parent has the financial means to raise a child alone, should a couple be given higher priority over the single?

  • http://127.0.0.1 3lemenope

    Surprisingly enough, not everyone parses all sentences they read to see how they might play dog-whistle style in the Great American Kulturkampf.

    It’s an annoying enough tendency on both sides, everyone looking for an excuse to be enraged and offended and demonstrate to their friends and relatives how they are on the “correct” side of the struggle for the soul of America and Western Civilization and humanity as we know it. Bores the crap out of me.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Dear God, that is SO true.

  • joey_in_NC

    Surprisingly enough, not everyone parses all sentences they read to see how they might play dog-whistle style in the Great American Kulturkampf.

    Actually, I’ve seen it nauseatingly often enough in atheists blogs that I’ve visited. Especially with the topic of gender assumptions. Heaven forbid one uses the traditionally all-inclusive ‘his’ instead of explicitly stating ‘his/her’ or the modern inventions ‘hir’ or ‘xir’, or if someone mistakenly assumes a person who uses a male-sounding username is actually a guy.

    Another popular complaint concerns the labeling of the organism inside a pregnant woman. I’ve seen many go out of their way to remind pro-choice advocates to continue labeling it a ‘fetus’, even if the pregnancy is entirely wanted. For example, they would object if one asks, “Do you know the sex of the baby yet?”

    Because of my past experiences with other blogs, I was simply genuinely surprised no one offered a comment/correction. I guess I have been so used to the other atheist blog, and that there really are differences between the commentators of this blog and that one.

    But I guess me bringing it up doesn’t help things any. Anyway, consider the subject dropped.

  • The Starship Maxima

    Like you, I’ve become a bit of a regular guest in these parts. There’s always the mistake of assuming just because they are loud, they are the majority.

    Another problem is that one person will start a mini-crusade and before you know it three more people take up the banner. Not fun, but it is what it is.

    I find that sometimes, the best way is to handle it is to be polite, but also firm in putting the offense in check. On another post I called someone a “dumb bitch” and explained that it wasn’t a sex or gender specific insult, and that simply because someone perceives it that way doesn’t make their perception any more or less valid.

    I amended it because I wanted to, not because I had some sort of obligation.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Deja de joder…You know damn well that Jesus was parented by one teen mom, TWO daddies and a Pigeon who looked a helluva lot like Mo Willems’ Ticked-Off-Pigeon. As we like to blaspheme south of the border, “el Barbudo, su Chamaco y la Paloma”..Jesucristo turned out just FINE even if he was his own father. Deal with it.

  • HappyGilmores

    You know damn well that Jesus was parented by one teen mom, TWO daddies and a Pigeon who looked a helluva lot like Mo Willems’ Ticked-Off-Pigeon.

    Oh my goodness — what a colorful response…thanks for the laugh!

  • PG

    I wish I could relate to such a heartening story, however the guardian at litem appointed in my son’s custody case was dead-set against me from the moment that she heard I was an atheist. She did everything she could to vilify me, all while ignoring the alcoholism and 5 DUIs (yes, FIVE) on the other side of the courtroom. Apparently a drunk mom is better than a godless dad.

  • The Starship Maxima

    That kind of blind bias is mind-boggling. Sorry about that.

  • Portaloid

    I’m so sorry. I hope everything turned out all right; I can’t believe that she would really try to vilify you compared to 5 DUIs.

  • ecolt

    My partner made sure that when he and his ex split it was written into the custody agreement that any religious education had to be done with the permission of the other parent. His (very Catholic) ex-wife steps all over that, knowing that the courts in our area would almost definitely find in her favor if he ever tried to take her to court over that (or just about anything else she does).

  • Joe

    It doesn’t help that often, according to the courts, any mom at all is better than any dad. The amount of bias favoring the mother is ridiculous and results in some number of kids being placed with the worse parent.

  • The Starship Maxima

    “Sometimes it takes somebody on the outside to look at what you’re doing, and ask why you’re doing it,” he said.

    Exactly. Too many atheists have this meme that every Christian or theist is out to screw them over. No, sometimes, we’re just used to the old way and haven’t bothered to consider another angle.

    But Terry took a chance that the religious people weren’t evil, and the agency realized Terry’s lack(?) of faith was irrelevant.

    As I said before, sometimes we need to give people a chance to show off their better nature instead of just assuming the worst.

  • HappyGilmores

    I agree — However, it’s really hard when people find your idea’s threatening. Sometimes, I admit I am mama bear, when I smell intolerance…for a lot of things, I try and find a reasonable approach, and it looks like both Terry and Gladney Agency, were able to be reasonable humanist’s. (*wink*, *wink*- I say humanist, you may say Christian) People like you are few and far between. Thanks Starship : )

  • The Starship Maxima

    I see what you did there. Well played. :)
    And thank you for the compliment. I’m on a mission to get people to realize the crazy Bible-wavers can be tolerant, sane, and fun, as well.

  • Buggi

    When we were on our adoption journey here in Oklahoma, we hit massive Christian requirements all over the place. Even when they weren’t directly stated, they were implied, supported, or expected. A few agencies were set up to be directly Christian to Christian adoptions. At the time we were with one, I hid my atheism from them by saying that I had been going through a rough time with my faith. In a month after my statement, we were dropped from their roles. No reason given. We suspect now that it was because we were over 40 and for no other reason, but I’ve always wondered. Using state agencies, it was clear that the DHS representatives and foster families were all Christian focused. One set of girls we were looking at had been praised as having recently accepted Jesus in their lives through the church of their foster family. Mind you, this is the same agency whose instructions for fostering and for adopting that you needed to honor the children’s current religious beliefs. An idea that while seemingly noble, was only lip service at the very best. To disagree or cause problems could really harm your chances in adopting. The agencies and their caseworkers have all the power. All of us going through the journey had the same sort of mindset. Say what they want you to say. Agree with what they want you to agree with. Once the final hearing is done and the states says that child is yours 100% and you don’t plan to adopt again, do whatever you want with your child. Again, YOUR child. Some agencies gave the impression that if you hadn’t complied with keeping the child Christian in a follow up interview, that you could be challenged as being fit parents and the child taken away.

  • https://antiavidanime.wordpress.com/ The Other Weirdo

    That’s very Christian of them. They were doing similar things to Jews as late as the previous century. “Convert, or you’ll never see your children again who will be raised Christian.”

  • HappyGilmores

    I hear your frustration. What part of the country do you live in? The process can be hard, that’s for sure.

    Let me clarify something very important here — identifying yourself as an Atheist is not illegal and the agency can not remove adopted children because of your belief or non beliefs – Children are removed because of neglect or abuse.

  • $324578

    This is a wonderful story! I’m so glad to hear things went the way they did, and good for you for speaking up. :-)

  • HappyGilmores

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the adoptive children come into homes through various facilitators and agencies.

    *International adoptions

    *Birth-mother – domestic infant adoptions

    *Domestic foster care to adoption (my experience was interstate ICPC)

    Each
    process has it’s own purpose in disclosing the families culture and
    routine’s. The lack of religious beliefs are poor indicators to
    justify whether the family is worthy to adopt…. I can say that from experience the journey to adopt is long, with many hurdles regardless of your beliefs or lack of….with that being said —

    The questions the agency SHOULD ask of prospective adoptive parents is
    only
    important in recognizing the child’s needs; in order to let the
    adoptive child explore his/her identity and NOT be so hung up on
    the parents
    practices or documented religious participation…(like Terry has presented) that essentially is the root of the discussion.

    However, I could see a birth mother asking the religious beliefs of the
    prospective adoptive parent…just because the situations are more
    intimate, though I have not participated in these arrangements. I will
    add that I have seen adoption profiles online and most of the
    prospective adoptive parents who are looking for a birth mom to give
    their child to them are mostly religious OR I wonder… are they afraid in
    declaring their atheism…Check it out – most profiles will mention “gift
    of a child from god”…there is still work to be
    done in that aspect…So, why aren’t there more prospective adoptive parent profiles (domestic infant adoption) declaring their atheism?

  • Tim VanHaitsma

    I adopted and was openly atheist. I had no issues although it dis make me nervous. My agency was secular in name, but they serve a very religious community. I did raise an eyebrow with our case worker but they had no problem working with us to adopt.

  • Jordan Sugarman

    Honest question: Isn’t the prospective parents’ religious beliefs (or lack thereof) relevant to how they will raise the children? Certainly, I agree that using it as a simple litmus test is a poor approach, but I think we of all people know just how strongly religious faith can affect the lives of believers, not least of all in the area of child rearing. For example, if I were in charge of placing kids with families, I would certainly not want them put with people that believe god orders them to beat disobedient children into submission.

  • aaa

    You adopted one of the members of Run DMC?

  • Terry Firma

    This was shortly after she and I visited the Spy Museum in New York together, where she got that pair of spy-glasses. So I think he was going for the International Woman of Mystery look.

  • John O’Malley

    What a great story; a real victory for freedom of conscience (or more importantly, the children).

  • Tana

    I am non religious, single and adopted my daughter domestically. I had to filter thru several agencies who wanted me to sign a statement saying I was christian. I would not do that. Finally was matched and the birth parent didn’t judge. She picked me. My daughter is now 2.5.

  • Mark Nettlingham

    This intrigues me – I’m currently going through the adoption process in the UK, and while I’ve been asked all kinds of questions, I’ve always believed that they’re for the child’s benefit. I was asked about my religion, as while it would have no impact on my ability to bring up a child, the child’s parents (rightly, I believe) are able to state a preference for which religion they’d prefer them to be brought up in – although no guarantees are offered. Stating I was an atheist was treated in the same manner as the colour of my skin, merely added to my profile.

    If a child was placed with me, along with a preference for a religion, I’d happily expose them to that religion, in the same way that I’d want a foreign child to speak their birth language.

    I’m also curious, if you’ll indulge, around what appears to be almost a preference in the States to adopt from abroad rather than locally. It could be that my sample size is woefully low, but pretty much all Americans I know who have adopted have gone abroad, and my British friends have adopted from within the UK. Are there barriers in adopting a child from the US? I’d love to know your motivation.