Church attendance 'not an issue' with children's home

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Tennessee Department of Children's Services wants the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home to take children in its care to church, despite recent reports that the state agency has halted placements to the facility based on that issue.

"The main thing I want to make very, very clear is that we absolutely want all children in the custody of the state to have an opportunity for religious and spiritual experiences," DSC Commissioner Viola Miller told Baptist Press. "We believe just as strongly as anybody on earth believes that that is a critically important part of a child's life and a child's development and a child's identity of him or herself. We want all kids to go to church."

The only objection DCS has, Miller said, is that their contract, based on a 2001 lawsuit settlement called "Brian A.," uses vague language to suggest children should not be forced to go to church.

"I did this work for eight years in Kentucky, and I never had one incident of somebody being concerned because a child refused to go to church," she said. "It's just not an issue with children in out-of-home care. If the group that they're with is getting up and going to church, kids will get up and go to church just like in your own family. Sometimes my kids whined about it a little bit, but because our family got up and went to church, they got up and went to church."

The issue is not whether DCS wants children to attend church, Miller said, but whether they are forced to attend.

Bryant Millsaps, president of the TBCH, told Baptist Press April 14 he remains under the impression DCS is not placing children in the TBCH because of the church issue.

"All we currently know is that we were told by officials of the Department of Children's Services that in order for them to place children in our care, we would have to remove the requirement that children attend church," he said.

Regarding Miller's statement that Brian A. uses vague language to suggest children should not be forced to go to church, Millsaps said he has read the settlement two or three times and simply cannot find such language. The only constitutional language that some could use to support the claim that children should have a choice about going to church would be the First Amendment.

"I believe there's a pretty good chance you could go into court and say that if you're raising a child in a faith-based ministry and they're required to attend church, it is not a creation of a state-sanctioned religion," Millsaps said.

Miller, in her interview with Baptist Press, said a key factor in placing children in the home is a change in philosophy resulting from the Brian A. settlement.

"Absolutely nothing is keeping us from placing children in the home, and we want to place children in the home," Miller said. "The only issue is that historically the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home ... has primarily worked with what we call level one children, those who by definition can be cared for in a home setting."

Miller sent a letter to Millsaps, telling him the home's "excellent reputation in the community and the long-standing relationship our two agencies share is a partnership I want to continue and enrich."

Also in the April 2 letter, Miller explained that progressive national trends in child welfare practice and the Brian A. lawsuit are defining the DCS philosophy on what is called "congregate care" and driving DCS to seek placements for children in family-type settings whenever possible.

"With this in mind, I would very much like to engage you in further discussion about continuing the collaboration between DCS and the TN Baptist Children's Home to explore other options," Miller wrote.

Among the changes Miller suggested TBCH could make in order to conform to the Brian A. settlement:

-- Develop in-home services to families with children at risk of entering state custody.

-- Utilize the parent's choice to voluntarily place their children at the TBCH, in lieu of entering DCS custody.

-- Place children that are inappropriate for foster homes in TBCH.

-- Provide respite care for DCS foster parents.

"I began to outline a list of other areas where that facility can be used very effectively to help children who are in the custody of the state," Miller said of the letter to TBCH. "We are very willing and want to work out an agreement where they are continuing to care for children."

Miller said the only restriction for children being placed in TBCH care at this time is that children who are able to be in homes with families should not be placed in TBCH if foster families are available.

"One of the drawbacks and one of the reasons why we want these children with minimal problems placed in homes is because these are the children that are most likely to get adopted," she told Baptist Press. "Most of our adoptions happen within our foster homes."

But for those children who do need congregate care, Miller said TBCH is an ideal place.

"We want kids to go to church. The only language is very nebulous in the contract and it's language that reflects constitutional language," she said. "But as I said before, it's not an issue. It was never an issue. Many of our providers in Tennessee are faith-based. It isn't just the Baptist homes. This has simply never been a big issue, and we have always and will continue to be very supportive of children in state custody having an opportunity to participate in religious activities."

Miller, an Episcopalian, said for many children, churches provide youth groups with such activities as visiting nursing homes and raising money for good causes.

"I want my kids engaged in events like that where they have an opportunity to give back to society, and most of those kinds of events happen within the context of a religious community," she said.

"The most important thing is we want these children engaged in church and in religious experiences," Miller added in closing.

Millsaps told Baptist Press a possible difference in understanding may exist between him and Miller over the church attendance policy. He said TBCH has never forced a child to go to church.

"If a child is sick or there is some other compelling reason why a child needs to stay at home, we make responsible decisions just like any family would about what that child will do," he said.

Another issue Millsaps mentioned was that the TBCH does raise children in a family setting.

"We have here at the children's home as much of a family setting as there is anywhere in the state of Tennessee," he said, referring to the way children live in cottages with house parents and a few other children.

Concerning the list of possible changes TBCH could make in order to be more helpful to DCS, Millsaps said they already do most of them. For several years they've had a family preservation program in which they intervene in crisis situations in homes before the situations become explosive and children are taken into state custody.

TBCH also utilizes parents' choices to voluntarily place children in the home, Millsaps said. They also will accept children who are not appropriate for foster homes as long as they are level one children, since the state only licenses them to care for level one children.

Also, children can be and have been adopted from TBCH just as easily as from foster homes. The only issue is that TBCH doesn't receive children until they're about five years of age, and most people who want to adopt are looking for infants.

"As soon as we have someone that tells us they're willing to adopt an older child, we try to hook them up with one of the older children in our care," Millsaps said. "We work very hard on that."

At this time, TBCH has just over 30 empty beds that could be filled with children from DCS.

Millsaps said he is encouraged that Miller said DCS expects children to go to church.

"She can say that that's not a big issue and never was an issue," he said. "All we know is the director of placement resources for the state Department of Children's Services told us that was the reason why they would not be placing children with us and that if we wanted children placed in DCS custody we needed to change that. All I know is what her staff told us."

Millsaps said he and Miller have agreed to have a meeting about the issue soon.


For an earlier report about the Tennessee Baptist Children's Home and its disagreement with the Department of Children's Services, visit http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=17953.

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