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Who should be allowed to foster?

A Christian couple have been blocked in their attempt to foster children this week. Eunice and Owen Johns had applied to Court to prevent Derby city council from continuously stalling their application to foster children. The council was doing so because the couple are Pentecostal Christians who hold “strong views on homosexuality, stating that it is ‘against God’s laws and morals’”. The court refused to rule on the matter, effectively allowing the council to prevent the Johns from fostering. Should conservative Christians be allowed to foster children?

One very relevant issue in the case is how likely it is that a child would be harmed by being fostered by the Johns. The Court therefore considered how the Johns views were likely to affect children they fostered. For example, the couple had been asked whether they would be able to support a child who was confused about their sexuality and thought they might be gay. Initially, their response to this was negative, although later Eunice said she would support any child. Owen said he would “gently turn them around”. The judges take it that a child who turned out to be gay would be adversely affected by being fostered by people with the Johns’ views. This seems plausible, since Mr Johns has suggested he would try to ‘convert’ the child, and both have indicated that they would disapprove of the child’s orientation. It might be thought that their disapproval would not necessarily constitute a major harm to the child, as long as they treated the child with respect, and allowed them to make up their own minds. However, the explicit disapproval of someone playing a parental role in a child’s life might very much upset the child, and lead them to feel guilty for something they can’t change.

If a child placed with the Johns were at risk of being harmed if they turned out to be gay, that is a reason not to let them foster. Yet society cannot legislate against all harms. For example, we think our speed limit is allowable even though there are some deaths which would be prevented by a lower speed limit. The harm of those deaths is thought to be outweighed by the harm which would be caused if everyone were forced to drive slower. We think there is something bad about the current state of affairs, but that the alternative would be worse. Perhaps we are in a similar position in the case of fostering. It might be that although allowing the Johns to foster children involves some risk to those children, the alternative would be worse. There might be very few people prepared to be foster parents, and all of them have some attributes which could harm children in their care. Then the children would be least at risk with the Johns. So the Johns’ attitudes should be taken into consideration in the fostering process, but should not rule them out as candidates. The final decision should also depend on the alternatives.

As well as harm to the child fostered, there might be impacts on society as a whole. Children are likely to pick up the views of those who foster them. Therefore, it might be that those who have particularly objectionable views, which are likely to harm society as a whole, should be discouraged from fostering. For example, we might want to discourage a racist couple from fostering children, even if their views weren’t going to cause them to mistreat the children they foster. This would be because we wanted to prevent children from picking up and perpetuating racist views. Perhaps it would also be because the government wants to take a firm stance and to make clear its disapproval of racism. A similar argument could apply in the case of the Johns. By preventing people with homophobic views from fostering, the Council encourages values such as tolerance, which will be beneficial for society as a whole.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Great post Michelle. However, I have never been clear on the ethical basis for holding foster parents or adoptive parents to higher standards than we hold other people who have children. There is a double standard here, perhaps based on the false acts/omissions distinctions. In the usual case, we allow couples to have children. in the adoption or foster case, we are acting to provide parents for them. But why should it make a difference from the child's point of view? What matters is the degree of harm parents inflict. So if we disallow some conservative Christians from fostering, we should prevent or at least discourage or educate them when they contemplate having their own children. I think many people would find that offensive. If so, then we apply the same standards to fostering.

  2. I agree there are double standards. I think it basically comes down to supply and demand, at least with adoption (I'm less familiar with supply and demand with regard to fostering). Also, if we follow Simon in reasoning from a liberal/Rawlsian standpoint, state intervention in the biological family unit seems to me significantly more invasive than applying some kind of suitability criteria in the case of fostering and/or adoption. Bottom line is that if supply (of would-be parents) exceeds demand, and if we don't want to use market mechanisms to close the gap (a whole other debate of course), then you need to apply some kind of selection, so why not suitability? What annoys me though is that this motivation is generally denied by the authorities (at least here in Belgium).

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