For a Charity Nowadays, Everything’s Political

Bethany Christian Services faces protests and lawsuits for its work with migrants and foster children.


Grand Rapids, Mich.

When Christopher Palusky became president of Bethany Christian Services in January, he didn’t expect to end up tangling with Michael Moore. But that’s exactly what happened thanks to the charitable agency’s work placing some 100 migrant children into foster homes in Michigan and Maryland. In a Facebook post in June, the left-wing filmmaker encouraged his followers to “find out where in your area they have stashed the children Homeland Security have kidnapped,” and to “go there, surround the building and refuse to leave until the children are reunited with their parents.”

“In my area,” Mr. Moore added, “it’s a Betsy DeVos-funded joint called ‘Bethany Christian Services.’ ” Local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP echoed Mr. Moore’s call to protest, and on June 27 more than 150 people showed up at Bethany’s campus. Mr. Palusky and his colleagues had to change the location of the school migrant kids attended during the day.

At the same time, Mr. Palusky has fielded criticism from neighbors for his public opposition to the separation policy. “We started to raise the alarm bell in D.C., saying this isn’t right,” he tells me. “We don’t want this happening in our country.” Trump supporters—of which there are plenty in Grand Rapids—demanded to know why Bethany was “going against the administration,” Mr. Palusky says.

Bethany Christian Services, founded in 1944, is not a political organization. It describes itself as “a social services agency that serves and supports expectant parents, foster families, individuals and families in need of counseling, and struggling families and children who are in desperate need of even the most basic necessities.”

For a Charity Nowadays, Everything’s Political

But increasingly politics seems to find Bethany. It has been engaged in refugee resettlement for 40 years. In 2013, it started placing unaccompanied alien minors with foster parents until a permanent home can be found. Although Mr. Palusky strongly opposes the Trump administration’s separation policy, he said “there was no question in my mind” that Bethany would work with the government to find homes for the kids while their situations were sorted out: “Either the kids were going to live in big-box stores or detention centers or they were going into loving foster homes.”

Meantime, Bethany’s caseworkers call around to detention centers to locate the parents. “A couple of weeks into the process, we knew where all the parents were,” Mr. Palusky says. Most of the children were able to talk to their parents on the phone. “In fact,” he adds, “we’ve been informing DHS”—the Department of Homeland Security—“where the parents are, because they haven’t always been able to find them.”

In June Mr. Palusky accompanied two boys to Phoenix to be reunited with their parents. As the car approached the detention facility, one of them saw his father lined up with his face against the wall and started yelling, “That’s my dad! That’s my dad!” Mr. Palusky recalls: “I got choked up and said, ‘I’m really sorry that you were taken apart from your dad. That’s not who we are and that’s not what we’re about, and that’s not the America that I know.’ ” As of this week, 90% of the kids in Bethany’s care have been reunited with their families.

Mr. Palusky prefers not to comment on the general ability of state and federal bureaucracies to keep track of, let alone care for, children. But at a time when almost every state in the country is experiencing a severe shortage of foster families, he notes that more than 100 people showed up for a recent meeting to recruit foster families for migrant children.

In addition to its work with refugees and migrants, Bethany offers adoption services in 36 states and foster care in nine—and that, too, can embroil it in politics, given the antagonism its religious character can inspire. Like many faith-based organizations, it is more successful than child-welfare bureaucracies at finding families to take in kids who need homes. Mr. Palusky describes his work as allowing foster and adoptive families “to do what Christ has told them to do. Christ talks about widows and orphans and taking care of them; here’s an opportunity for you to do that.”

He adds that “we’re not your mother’s adoption agency.” Although Bethany does arrange adoptions of babies from mothers who want to place them with other families, most of its work focuses on other populations, including older children in sibling groups, and kids with severe behavioral problems. The opioid crisis has escalated the foster-care situation: “I’m in disaster-response mode right now,” says Mr. Palusky, who previously worked for the evangelical relief agency World Vision.

International adoption, meanwhile, has dropped 80% since its peak in 2004. Bethany has been outspoken in criticizing the State Department for focusing only on child trafficking and not the benefits of intercountry adoption. But resistance also comes from other countries, and Bethany looks for ways to help.

Ethiopia, for instance, has shut down international adoptions entirely. Bethany encouraged church members within the country to adopt. Taking in kids “outside of their own tribe was unheard of,” Mr. Palusky says. Bethany has facilitated the adoption of “over 500 kids adopted in Ethiopia by Ethiopians.” Foster care likewise was “a foreign concept” there until Bethany started working on it.

In many Third World countries, there is still no one to take in the hardest cases. “Governments have said, ‘We want to deal with our own issues in our own country,’ ” Mr. Palusky says—but they often fall short. “Ninety-seven percent of our international adoptions are kids with special needs. It could be a cleft palate. It could be Down syndrome.”

Although American Christians are eager to take in children with serious medical challenges regardless of race, nationality or tribe, Bethany and its families face constant criticism from the left that they’re motivated by either money or missionizing.

Now the organization is under attack from those who don’t approve of its policy against placing children with same-sex couples. In September the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan for contracting with Bethany. The city of Philadelphia is also threatening to end Bethany’s foster-care contract in the name of gay rights.

Mr. Palusky has no objection to secular charities and advocates a pluralistic, “big tent” approach to foster care: “Our niche is inside the faith-based community. Because of that we are able to help out more kids.” But he wants more people to be able to “align with the organization they want” in order to do foster care.

When I ask if he would be open to a recent proposal to “voucherize” foster care and adoption, giving families the wherewithal to choose which organizations to work with, he gets to the heart of the matter: “OK, is it going to help out more kids?” He replies to his own question: “If the answer is yes, that’s wonderful.”

Ms. Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

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