Kelly Clemente understands what it means for life to not go according to plan. She sat behind a microphone at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC Monday as part of a panel discussion labeled, "Children in Crisis: Safeguarding Faith-Based Adoption and Foster Care." After being introduced, Clemente held up several pages of handwritten notes she had prepared, then put them down. "I'm just going to speak from my heart," she said.
"It's the story of my life. It's not just a policy that I'm trying to push, it's not a political belief that I'm here today to talk to you about. I'm here because adoption changed my entire life."
Clemente had an unplanned pregnancy when she was 18 and in college. She worked with Bethany Christian Services, a Christian adoption agency, to find a family for her son, Alex.
"My identity was in a lot of things, but 'birth mother' wasn't anything I planned for my life," Clemente remembered as she recounted her story for the panel and an auditorium full of people there to discuss recent threats to faith-based adoption agencies.
According to Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, some 440,000 children are in foster care in the United States. One hundred thousand of them are waiting to be adopted. The numbers have been increasing over the last several years due to the opioid crisis.
Legal challenges in several states, brought forth by the American Civil Liberties Union, could make it impossible for faith-based adoption agencies to obtain licenses. Licensing is done at the state level.
Last month, the city of Philadelphia stopped Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services from placing children with adoptive families, because it said the agencies had violated the city's Fair Practices ordinance, which prohibits "discrimination" on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. These faith-based agencies opt only to place children with married couples that can provide a mother and a father.
Birth mother Kelly Clemente explained she chose Bethany Christian Services "because it was the first thing that popped up on Google." She said she expected judgment but instead experienced the opposite.
"I was met with love by a Bethany social worker," Clemente said through tears. "She never shoved religion down my throat; she never made me feel bad for what I did. She was the first person that saw me and heard me and made me feel like maybe there was light at the end of this tunnel that I was trapped in."
Keeping The Kids First
Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, made it clear his organization aims to keep the kids first, not the adults, in the adoption equation. He made the point during the panel discussion that arguing about who should be allowed to adopt takes the focus off the kids.
"There is no right to adopt, only the right of a child to have a loving family," Johnson said.
He also said it's hard to estimate how many adoption agencies in the United States are faith-based because adoption is handled at the state level. He says LGBT adoption is happening in all 50 states. Gay and lesbian families have access to other agencies. Johnson pointed out faith-based agencies really tap into motivating families to adopt, some even viewing it as a calling.
"People who feel called to adopt are the most persevering," Johnson said.
The Pro-Life Connection
Ryan Bomberger, who was adopted as a child and has adopted as a parent, was also a member of the panel at the Heritage Foundation. He founded the Radiance Foundation, a pro-life organization that supports adoption.
"You can't talk about abortion without talking about adoption. That's basically like not finishing a sentence," Bomberger said, pointing out the same groups that are trying to shut down faith-based adoption agencies are the same groups that try to close pro-life pregnancy centers – giving pregnant women fewer choices.
"I think it's really important in the pro-life movement that we understand what's at stake here," Bomberger said, "When you're eliminating those who are actually leading and placing vulnerable children in loving and stable homes, when those agencies are being threatened or are closing, eligible foster parents are being nixed because they don't affirm an ideology, that puts us in a dangerous place."
Emilie Kao wrote recently in The National Review that children in need "deserve every option for finding a forever family."
Birth mother Kelly Clemente makes the same case for women in the situation she found herself in at age 18.
"It's not fair to take away a birth mother's right to a faith-based agency because these women don't just have a physical problem. Some of these women are at their weakest moment spiritually and they are spiritually dying," Clemente pleaded. "If you take Christ out of the conversation, you are doing them a disservice."