Four Oaks withdraws from foster parent retreat at Bible camp

State contractor's routine use of churches raises concerns

(FILE PHOTO) Four Oaks President and CEO, Anne Gruenewald speaks about the Affordable Housing Network's Wellington Heigh
(FILE PHOTO) Four Oaks President and CEO, Anne Gruenewald speaks about the Affordable Housing Network’s Wellington Heights housing initiative in Cedar Rapids Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Four Oaks, a Cedar Rapids-based social service agency with a state contract to recruit and train foster parents in Iowa, is defending its use of church facilities despite concerns from some Iowans it may deter prospective foster parents who aren’t Christians.

Four Oaks last month withdrew from a training retreat set for this weekend at the Village Creek Bible Camp in Lansing after learning it was marketed as being for “like-minded families” and included devotions and child care provided by staff screened for their views of homosexuality and divorce.

“As soon as it came to our attention, we said ‘No, no, no’,” said Kelli Malone, chief program officer for Four Oaks. “It became clear we didn’t want people to misconstrue we were supporting one religion over another.”

Separation of church and state

The First Amendment prohibits government from establishing an official religion, but exactly what is meant by “establishment” is unclear.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled inconsistently over the years, making it hard for scholars to predict how any future case might come out, said Paul Gowder, a University of Iowa law professor who teaches constitutional law.

Government money can’t be used for religious purposes, which came into play in 2006 when an Iowa judge ruled Prison Fellowship Ministries had to cease operations at the Newton Correctional Facility and repay the state $1.5 million, the Associated Press reported.

The government also can’t appear to endorse religion, which was why Ten Commandments monuments were removed from the lawns of public buildings in Iowa and elsewhere.


Laws or practices also can’t foster an “excessive entanglement” between government and religion, Gowder said.

“Nobody really knows what that means,” he said.

A Need for MORE foster parents

Between 4,000 and 5,000 children are in Iowa’s foster care system at any given time and there’s never enough foster parents to meet the need, social workers told The Gazette last fall.

“Specific needs for foster family recruitment are for families who are willing to care for teens, LGBTQ youth, sibling groups, non-white children, children with challenging behaviors, and who are willing to work with birthparents,” Malone said.

Some studies have shown LGBTQ children are overrepresented in the foster care system nationally, compared with their representation in the entire population.

Four Oaks will get up to $7 million from the state and federal government this year to provide recruitment, retention, training and support for 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Far western Iowa is served by Lutheran Services of Iowa.

First-time foster parents must complete 30 hours of state-approved training for initial licensure and six hours each year after, according to Iowa Code. There are some mandatory sessions, such as CPR/First Aid and child abuse reporting.

State-funded training at churches

Four Oaks offers 29 training sessions this month in four geographic regions of the state. About one-third are in churches — mostly protestant and evangelical — while the remainder are in Four Oaks offices, public libraries, an area education agency and a public health building. according to the agencies’ online training calendar.

Training sessions offered at the churches includes CPR/First Aid, mandatory reporter training and sessions on childhood trauma and skin and hair care for children of color.


These same topics are covered at other, non-church sites, but families in some communities — Clinton, Creston and West Des Moines among them — would have to drive to another city to go to a training not in a religious institution.

“Any state contractor should take care when considering space to use...If they’re working with a religious organization, they should definitely check into that based on the state law with regard to the Iowa Civil Rights Act to ensure there’s a separation of church and state.”

- Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel

Executive Director of One Iowa

Bible camp retreat

Village Creek Bible Camp, in far northeastern Iowa, approached Four Oaks last fall about offering state foster parent training during a retreat scheduled for Friday through today, camp owner Camie Treptau said.

A brochure billed the retreat as a chance for “like-minded families to come together and share experiences, tips and encouragement with the bonuses of skilled staff and child care, fun activities and great food.” Training sessions were to be offered amid other activities, including games, a campfire, devotions and chapel.

Treptau said Four Oaks approved the brochure, but then a few weeks ago announced it had to withdraw from the training.

“Once we became aware of the context of the event, we said ‘We’re withdrawing from this’,” Malone told The Gazette. “I saw the same thing you did, which is the brochure. When you look at the brochure, it’s pretty clear” religion is included.

The decision to pull out of the retreat came after a complaint from a Decorah foster family.

“The event being promoted offers the full required training for foster/adoptive parents, as well as childcare provided by Village Creek Bible Camp during the trainings,” one of the parents wrote in an Feb. 9 email to Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven and other officials after first writing in January to Four Oaks.

“Village Creek Bible Camp vets its prospective employees according to their views on ‘Homosexual/Lesbian involvement,’ and directs its employees to ‘disciple each camper in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ!’ and to ‘make Disciples and reach the Lost’.”

An online staff application for the camp asks applicants to say whether they have had “homosexual/lesbian involvement” as part of a list that includes tobacco use, illegal drugs, premarital and extramarital sex, divorce and remarriage.


The Decorah foster parents said they were concerned the retreat did not fit with the Four Oaks non-discrimination policy, but Four Oaks did not immediately provide that policy to the family when they asked in January.

The policy, provided to The Gazette, requires the organization to value “client culture and race, religious belief and expression, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression and create an environment that is inclusive, non-discriminatory and supportive.”

Once Four Oaks pulled out of the retreat, Village Creek had to cancel because camp staff didn’t have enough time to recruit replacement trainers, Treptau said.

“We feel like it’s a lot of miscommunication,” she said. “When we said ‘like-minded,’ it was those who are passionate about foster care.”

Perception matters

State officials support Four Oaks’s practice of training foster parents in churches.

“Funding is limited so contractors will try to find free space whenever possible,” Human Services said in a response prepared for The Gazette. “The (contract) specifically requires Four Oaks and LSI to engage faith communities in recruiting foster families. Holding trainings in church facilities can raise awareness of the need for foster families in communities.”

Gowder, the UI constitutional law expert, said Four Oaks probably is following the law when it uses church facilities for foster parent training as long as there isn’t pressure for attendees to be Christian. But he also think the agency was smart to pull out of the Village Creek retreat.

State contractors that use church facilities may not be obligated to vet the religious ideas of the organization in advance, but they may save themselves headaches if they do, said Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, executive director of One Iowa, an organization serving the LGBTQ community.

Perception is important, Hoffman-Zinnel said, especially with the prospect of discouraging much-needed foster families.


“Any state contractor should take care when considering space to use,” he said. “If they’re working with a religious organization, they should definitely check into that based on the state law with regard to the Iowa Civil Rights Act to ensure there’s a separation of church and state.”

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