More than 250 in area affected by battle between Catholic Charities, Illinois

The battle between the Catholic Church and state of Illinois over foster care and adoption services has real-life ramifications for more than 250 East Central Illinois children.

Currently, about 135 children in Champaign County are in foster care homes managed by Catholic Charities, according to state figures. In Vermilion County, the agency oversees 125 foster cases.

State officials said it's too soon to predict which agency might take over those cases once the legal fight over the state's new civil-unions law is settled.

Barring further appeals, the transition process could be completed this fall, a spokesman said this week.

"It's in the best interest of children that we have a deliberate and careful transition of these cases," said Kendall Marlowe, deputy director of communications for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

The department on Friday resumed the process of removing about 2,000 foster care and adoption cases statewide from Catholic Charities agencies based in Peoria, Joliet, Springfield and Belleville.

A Sangamon County judge ruled last week that the state can stop working with Catholic Charities on adoptions and foster care placements.

Catholic Charities has refused to recognize Illinois' new civil-unions law, continuing its practice of licensing only married couples or singles for foster care and adoption, and referring unmarried couples to other agencies.

DCFS ended $30 million in contracts with Catholic Charities in July, saying the state agency could not give contracts to any organizations that violate state anti-discrimination laws.

Catholic Charities then sued, arguing that after 40 years of annually renewed contracts it had developed a "property interest" in its work. It also maintained its policies were exempt from anti-discrimination laws under state statutes protecting religious practices.

In his ruling, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt said no one has a legal right to a contract with the state, but he did not address the church's conflict between the civil-unions law and religious freedom.

"We're disappointed that the heart of what it is we're trying to achieve — to continue to provide quality services for the most vulnerable children with our religious freedoms in mind — was not addressed in the hearing," said Celeste Matheson, director of advancement for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria.

Catholic Charities and its lawyers are still deciding their next steps, she said.

That could include a stay of the judge's opinion, an appeal or possibly a legal challenge in another venue, observers said. Matheson said a decision is likely this week.

Marlowe said the judge's decision "speaks for itself," but added: "The law is clear that all qualified loving parents in Illinois have the opportunity to apply to be a foster or adoptive parent. We have and will continue to make placement decisions based on the best interest of each child, and that approach leaves no room for illegal discrimination."

Catholic Charities of Peoria handles about 1,000 foster care cases in 26 counties. The Champaign office, which covers Champaign and Piatt counties, typically handles 150 to 175 cases at a time, Matheson said.

The Champaign office has 43 full-time and 10 part-time employees and provides services to 3,045 individuals, 2,990 of them in Champaign County, she said. Besides foster care, services include adoption, counseling, intact family services, pregnancy planning and family support, senior services, and outreach services for youths and families to prevent juvenile delinquency.

Those programs would remain intact even without state funding for the foster care program, Matheson said.

"They have nothing to do with foster care or that contract," she said.

Catholic Charities' Danville office, meanwhile, served 218 children in foster care last year, she said. It also worked with 147 parents through intensive parenting classes, therapy and other programs to help them reunite with their children.

State figures show Catholic Charities with 135 of the current 370 foster care cases in Champaign County court, and 125 of the 237 cases in Vermilion County.

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the other major provider in this region, has a caseload of 131 in Champaign County and 48 in Vermilion. The remaining cases are handled by DCFS caseworkers directly or other agencies where families may have moved to another county.

It's too early to say who might take on the Catholic Charities' cases here, Marlowe said. Lutheran Social Services is a "longstanding presence" in the state, but "we're looking at a clean piece of paper. Multiple agencies have expressed interest in taking on the work."

DCFS will send a team from its licensing division to review the status of every child's case. At the same time, it will review the capacity and performance of other agencies that may be interested, he said.

"If we get asked, yes we're interested," said John Schnier, executive director of Lutheran's Children's Community Services. "At this point, nobody's heard anything from DCFS."

Based in Des Plaines, Schnier's division oversees 1,000 foster-care cases statewide, including in Ford County, he said.

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