By JIM SUHR
ST. LOUIS – In large part due to their faith, Mark Zartman and Beth Banuelos swung open their families’ doors to children from broken homes in southern Illinois. Over the years, some two dozen kids have found refuge with the Zartmans and about 50 with the Banueloses.
Yet the Air Force retiree from Bartelso and the family counselor from Mascoutah are now among about 2,000 Illinois foster parents who face a painful decision if the government succeeds in ending its four-decade relationship with a Catholic charity over its opposition to Illinois’ new civil unions law.
Both families fostered children through Catholic Charities, but they would have to work with a different agency to continue partnering with the state if the nonprofit ultimately loses a legal fight. And they’ve chosen different paths- Banuelos to continue, Zartman to walk away.
“We prayed about it, talked about it. Sometimes you have to take a stand, and sometimes (it’s) hard,” said Zartman, 51, a member of a Pentecostal church.
“I’m torn,” said Banuelos, 60, a Lutheran. “If we turn our backs on working with another agency, where is it going to leave the kids?”
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services wants to cancel contracts totaling more than $30.6 million with Catholic Charities in four Illinois dioceses because the nonprofit refuses to recognize the law that allows unmarried couples- gay or straight- to legally enter into civil unions. If such couples wanted to be foster or adoptive parents, the charity would steer them to other agencies.
Catholic Charities sued the state in July, arguing it shouldn’t be forced to place children in homes of unmarried couples and that state laws provide religious exemptions. A judge sided with the state, and the charity pledges to appeal.
As the legal dispute plays out in court, the families involved say the matter is also one of faith and loyalty.
Catholic Charities is handling about 2,000 of the state’s 15,400 foster care and adoption cases. Church officials say many families with which they work may not want to continue with another agency.
“We’re the most-needed program in southern Illinois,” said Gary Huelsmann, executive director of Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois, a Belleville diocese entity that handles about 630 foster children for the state.
“People do this out of senses of love and care, and they very much want to do it with an agency that has strong Christian values,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of loyalty.”
Harry Wildfeuer, a spokesman for the Joliet diocese, which works with 340 foster households, said he believes the number of families opting out would be “considerable.”
But state officials say such concern is exaggerated.
The state already is beginning the process of transferring children in Catholic Charities care to the nearly four dozen other licensed child-welfare agencies in Illinois and expects to find the families it needs, said Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Kendall Marlowe. The effort is in a case-by-case review stage, though transitioning could be complete by this fall, he said.
“We can transition those 2,000 cases to other agencies,” he said. “The notion (Catholic Charities) is promoting that somehow they’re indispensable and no one can fill the void just is not the case.”
He said he didn’t immediately know whether some families have tried to back out.
Last month, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt ruled that no one has a legal right to a state contract. But he did not address the more sensitive issue of whether a state contractor that refuses to work with gays is violating the state’s new civil unions law.
A lawyer for Catholic Charities said the group was to ask Schmidt to reconsider his ruling during a Friday court hearing before deciding on further legal appeals. But that hearing was postponed Friday morning to give the nonprofit more time to get court documents it believes it needs, a spokesman for the law firm representing Catholic Charities said. A new hearing date was not immediately set.
Supporters of the civil unions law have criticized the charity’s stance, saying that adoptions and foster care should be about the best interests of children, regardless of religious beliefs. And they take exception to any notion that same-sex couples can’t parent as well as married, heterosexual couples.
“If they don’t want to take state funds, that’s fine. They can find a way to fund their own bigotry elsewhere,” said Randy Hannig, public policy director for Equality Illinois, the state’s largest gay-rights group.
For some families, however, separating their faith from their desire to help children may not be easy.
In Murphysboro, Tammy Penrod and her husband have been foster parents to about 20 children for about the past six years through various agencies, most recently Catholic Social Services. The couple, who have three grown biological children, now have two foster children- siblings ages 10 and 8- whom they’re adopting.
“It was a calling,” said Penrod, who runs a daycare center. “We felt God was calling us into this for kids.”
Penrod- who is opposed to civil unions for any couples, gay or straight- believes the state’s stance is an affront to religious rights. If a judge rules against Catholic Charities, she said, “as soon as our adoption is through, this couple will be gone.”
Zartman said he and his wife plunged into fostering out of faith and a feeling they needed to help less fortunate children.
“A lot of kids that came through our doors had never experienced life in a normal household, where there’s a mom and dad and sometimes brothers and sisters,” he said. “These children came into our house with little structure, if anything a very small amount. When they came in here, we gave them a traditional family.”
Banuelos has worked with Catholic Charities for about a dozen years, with half of her 50 foster children staying with her family for extended periods. With two grown children of their own, she and her husband have an adopted 14-year-old daughter and a pair of brothers, ages 6 and 3 with cystic fibrosis.
Banuelos said the state should make an exception for Catholic Charities, though she would work with another foster agency “if it comes to that,” she said. “I will at least give it a try and see how it goes.”