Dec 23, 2019

By Aimee Maddonna

Editor’s Note: Aimee Maddonna is a plaintiff in the lawsuit Maddonna v. HHS, filed by Americans United. Here, she tells her story and explains why religious discrimination has no place in our country’s foster care system.

Several years ago, I found out about an amazing opportunity near my home in Simpsonville, S.C., to mentor and volunteer with children in foster care through Miracle Hill Ministries, one of the largest, most well-known foster care agencies in South Carolina.

This was a unique and exciting opportunity for my family because even our three children would be able to volunteer and interact with the kids in foster care. We know of no other program like it in our area. My whole family would be able to make a real difference in the lives of the children we see in billboards and donation solicitations. 

I grew up in a lower-middle class family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my father was a heavy equipment mechanic. They were also foster parents. In my early years, I had dozens and dozens of brothers and sisters. I remember the knocks at the door – sometimes in the middle of the night – that typically brought us a new sibling. I remember my parents up until the wee hours of the morning, soothing nightmares, calming confused and weeping children.

My father was placed into foster care in the 1960s and ’70s – a time that was not kind to children in the system. His was a brutal entry into the world. But he also experienced some bright spots along the way, which grew him into a man who served his country, who worked his butt off to provide for his own kids – and who wanted to give children in foster care something better than what he’d received from that system.

I grew up knowing that one day I wanted to do the same. I had seen up close and personal the beauty and the flaws within the foster care system. I knew I’d want to try to create those bright spots for other children.

My husband and I have three children, two of whom have special needs. While I personally consider our home to have a beautiful kind of chaos, it could be a lot for another child to deal with, especially one from a potentially traumatic background. But I also knew that it meant we were in a unique position to be able to support children with similar needs. I was so excited at the thought of eventually fostering children!

I emailed for a couple weeks with a Miracle Hill coordinator who asked a lot of questions. She told me, “You sound perfect.” The next step was to sign some paperwork and meet with a representative face-to-face.

They just had one more question: Miracle Hill needed a pastoral reference and to know which church I attended. I responded with the name of our Catholic parish. The next email from the coordinator was very different – while I sounded perfect, they only worked with evangelical Protestants. I was rejected because I’m Catholic.

After a short time had passed and as my children got older, I reached back out to Miracle Hill to try again to participate in the state-funded foster care program. Nothing had changed. After Americans United filed a lawsuit on my behalf against the federal and state governments for allowing this religious discrimination, Miracle Hill faced backlash and slightly altered its policies. They say they now will also work with Catholics and Orthodox Christians, as long as they will sign Miracle Hill’s evangelical Protestant statement of faith. But I can’t in good conscience sign a statement of faith that doesn’t reflect my personal religious beliefs. So the reality is, little has changed.

I can’t really describe the blow I felt when I was first told we weren’t suitable because we weren’t the right religion. I’m sure others have felt that same blow many times in their lives, for various reasons – the color of their skin, the gender of the person they love. In the past few years I have come to truly understand the weight of it all. And not because what I went through is necessarily comparable, but because of what one small slight can lead to.

My experience has taught me that if you don’t protect the rights of everyone, you are setting a precedent that will ultimately reach you.

But I did not file this lawsuit for “Catholic rights.” I am not challenging these harmful policies to have Catholics declared “good enough” to be foster parents (though we are good enough).

I am doing this because there are hundreds of thousands of kids in foster care. Many are in institutions right now, when instead they could be in the middle of bedtime stories, tucked in by loving parents, knowing that no matter what happened today, tomorrow they will wake up just as loved as they were when they were put to bed.

Whether for the rest of their lives, or only for a few months, I wanted to make sure these kids had happy experiences. Every single person in this world is entitled to feel loved by somebody, to feel that they are more than a burden, to feel – to know – that they are wanted.

We wanted these children to know Sunday night family pasta dinners, squabbling with siblings on Christmas mornings, the head-to-toes laughter and warmth of a game of hot potato gone awry. To have adults they love, and who love them; to argue with about a messy room; to be at their games or recitals or art shows. A place to call home no matter how old they are.

I wanted with the entirety of my being for them to have those moments – the kind of moments that are like a warm blanket over your heart. Those moments that, no matter how cold the world gets, you can call up and the world seems a bit more bearable.

Whatever you believe about religion, it has nothing to do with how suitable you are to be a parent. All that matters is that you are ready, willing and able to be a bright spot in a child’s life.

That’s why I agreed to go to court with Americans United, to challenge the state and federal governments for sanctioning religious discrimination in foster care and denying children loving families. And that’s why I hope you’ll contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, to ensure that no one in the foster care system is discriminated against.