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Podcast: Is America still a beacon of hope?

Boyd Matheson: Three stories easy to overlook from 30,000 feet, impossible to ignore, and individually important up close and personal. The Michigan adoption case pitting religious adoption agencies and LGBT couples longing for children. Criminal justice reform focused on how the setting of bail disproportionately hurts the poor. The number of refugees settled in the U.S. has gone down. Is America still a beacon of hope for the tired, poor huddled masses, yearning to be free? The personal side of big picture stories on this week's edition of Therefore, What?

Gillian Friedman
Gillian Friedman

We're pleased to be joined today by Gillian Friedman, an investigative and InDepth reporter for the Deseret News. She graduated from Whitman College with a B.A. in race and ethnic studies, has previously worked as a journalist at KIRO News in Seattle and KSL News Radio in Salt Lake City. In 2018, she was the recipient of the first-place award from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists for minority issues reporting. Gillian, thanks for joining us today.

Gillian Friedman: Great to be here.

BM: All right, we have a lot to cover. We’ve got three stories to cover and we're going to move on through them. But I wanted to start with this Michigan adoption case. Not everyone has been following it as closely as you have for the Deseret News. So give us just a little background, what is this case really all about?

GF: First of all, this is part of a yearlong religious liberty reporting project that is a part of the Desert News InDepth team. And this is something that we made a priority for the year to take stock of what's really going on across the country, in terms of negotiations for space for faith-based agencies in the public square. And these kinds of debates are playing out across the country. And it's really in adoption that we're seeing one of the most obscured but interesting battles play out. So in Michigan, specifically, this is one of the first actual cases that has come to the court. The ACLU sued the state of Michigan for contracting with faith-based adoption agencies that are refusing to serve same-sex couples. And this, on its surface, seems sort of straightforward. We're talking about gay couples that are coming forward saying, I want to adopt, and agencies that are saying, no, you can't. But when you look a little bit closer, it gets more complex. So really, the nuances here are what's important to look at to really understand what's at stake. So in this specific case, a gay couple came to a specific adoption agency and said, I want to adopt a child through you. And one of these agencies that has come forward in the case is St. Vincent Catholic Charities. They’re a really long-established Catholic organization in Michigan, really involved not just in adoption services, but also a host of other things like refugee resettlement, and what they're saying — their objection is very narrow. And the objection is that what they don't want to do is they don't want to write a written recommendation to the state that says that a gay couple can adopt a child. And the reason they don't want to do that is because of their religious beliefs about same-sex marriage. And so as an adoption agency that contracts with the state and they get government money to do their work, part of what they're required to do is fill out this evaluation. So a couple comes to them. And they say, OK, the first thing we're going to do is go into your home and see if you're safe, see if you’re qualified, see how the relationship is. So once they go into that home, they have to be able to fill out a form which includes an evaluation of the relationship. And what they're saying they're not comfortable with is saying anything at all. They're saying, we don't want to say their relationship is good, because we don't really believe that same-sex couples should be married. That's against our religious beliefs. We don't really want to say that it's bad, because we wouldn't want to prevent any couple from adopting. So they just don't want to do the evaluation at all, they'd prefer to leave that to another agency. Now, if that gay couple were to go to a different agency down the street and say, I want to get evaluated through you and got that evaluation and got a recommendation and then were licensed by the state, then this agency, St. Vincent, says they'd be more than willing to give that kid to that family. So it's a very narrow objection that really has to do more, it's more of being argued as more of a freedom of speech case, almost. They don't want to write something that they don't believe in.

BM: Right. So to me, it's interesting that we end up in court on this kind of case where clearly St. Vincent's has shown that people can still get the services that they're after. Obviously, the ACLU is looking at this as well, if you have — if you get even a penny from the government, if you're involved in contract work for the government in any way, shape or form, then you have to meet this broader perspective. And I guess to me, the bottom-line question in this one is, isn't there a way to negotiate that one? I mean, it seems like it should be, they should be able to negotiate it if they're really out for the best interest of the child. If we're really talking about can we get children into good homes? Shouldn't this be a slightly different conversation?

GF: Yeah, I mean, I think that's the key question here — is compromise possible? I was recently at an event in Washington, D.C., that really focused on this specific question. It was hosted by the Cato Institute. And it brought together stakeholders from all sides of this issue, to try to come together and discuss whether or not compromise was possible. This was a really interesting moment, because I think what we actually saw here was that there was a BYU assistant law professor there who said, you know, gay couples should never be prevented from adopting children. That's a paraphrase, but which is a pretty striking statement from the side of the faith-based agency, that's a BYU assistant law professor, and also a former attorney for Beckett, which is a religious liberty law firm. And so there seemed to be on that side a willingness to say, OK, what's best for the kids? It's for all of these kids to be able to find loving homes. And there's got to be a way that we can make sure that these kids find loving homes, but also that faith-based agencies don't have to violate their religious beliefs by filling out these forms. And, and on the other side, the individuals I interviewed were saying more that — my impression was that this kind of idea about compromise maybe isn't the right conversation for that side, always. I've talked to many individuals on that side who've said the truth is, this is more about sort of toeing a hard line because they believe that this is unjust, the government shouldn't be funding agencies that are, in their words, discriminating against LGBT individuals. And that in order to root out that injustice, compromise isn't the best solution, it really isn't compromise that we're seeking here. It's justice. And that justice doesn't come from backing down from a belief that you truly sincerely believe is right.

And so what I think is important to sort of weigh here is it's not necessarily — both sides are saying what's in the best interest of the kids is the most important. The faith-based agencies are saying, look at all this amazing work we do in the community, we make sure that special-needs kids get placed, that kids from diverse backgrounds get placed. We have less of a caseload because we get funding from the church. And so we're able to really do this amazing work. And the other side is saying, you know, if you reject gay couples from the community, and they get discouraged, if they're being rejected by these faith-based agencies, they might never come back. And then those kids will never find a home. So both sides are using the narrative of what's best for the children. But I think both sides have a different idea, both about what compromise looks like, and whether or not actually compromise is ideal. That's not necessarily seen as the ultimate path, that maybe for one side, compromise isn't the ideal solution. It's actually just, you know, sort of justice and that these agencies might close and that that's actually the right thing, and that we shouldn't compromise, right? So it's a rhetorical difference. But I think that's what's really fascinating here. And that's where there's so much tension.

BM: Yeah, and I think often we get lost in the all or nothingness of, you know, not compromising, and I understand the this is justice, we just need to root it all out. But there's a lot of paths to get there. And sometimes I wonder and worry that we get, again, on both sides, we end up with a lot of the heated rhetoric and talking points. And it's always an all-or-nothing solution, when I think there are ways to do accommodation. I think St. Vincent's has done a good job in terms of there are lots of options for gay couples to be able to go through the process, be evaluated and be able to get the child that they're hoping to help and bring into their family. And so it'll be interesting to watch. Any predictions where you think this one goes.

GF: I think we'll have to see. There has been one hearing in this case. So we'll have to see sort of — the hearing’s actually on whether or not the case will be dismissed. So if it is dismissed, that will certainly be significant. If it's not dismissed, then it will actually go into the formal sort of trial proceedings, and then we'll have to see. But it certainly will be a good one to watch, because it's one of the first. And I do think, just to your point, that one of the solutions that was proposed at that conference by Robin Fretwell Wilson, who's an academic who's really been in this space, was sort of that model that she talks about. This purity model idea that if all of the sides think that they have to kind of maintain the purity of their stance, like there's no way we're budging at all on this, and both sides in the past sort of have taken that tact, then we won't get anything done. And kids will suffer, right. But if both sides can let go of the purity model a little bit and say, OK, let's focus on the best needs of children, let's not necessarily politicize this, to the extent that we're actually either shutting down agencies that are doing great work, or rejecting couples that are loving and have loving homes, if we can focus on the kids, if we can increase the number of agencies that exist so there's multiple options, because a lot of what you're talking about in certain areas is maybe there's only one agency in a rural area. And then if that agency is faith-based, they won't work with the same-sex couple. And then that really is a problem, right?

So if you can increase the number of agencies in those rural areas, so she's working more about how can we create more points of access to eliminate these sort of choke points in which there really are these conflicts, and that really does lead to these lawsuits. Is there a way we can sort of just create more access for everyone so that everyone can have a solution that eliminates both, you know, the shutting down of agencies that are providing an important community service and the rejection of couples who want to provide a loving home to kids who need it.

BM: Awesome, that's great. I'm so glad you brought up the purity test component, because we miss out on more great solutions in this country because we do allow people to get to the purity test, all-or-nothing model. So fascinating stuff, great reporting, and we’ll continue to watch this one very close. I want to shift gears now. And I want to talk about criminal justice reform, which is such a critical need in the country right now. And again, from a high level, doesn't impact a lot of Americans day to day, there aren't a whole lot of people, you know, walking around the mall thinking about criminal justice reform. But this is another one, when you start to get closer and closer to it, you start to see some of the fatal flaws in the system that are particularly hurting minority groups and the poor specifically. You did a great piece talking about the setting of bail and just the whole path. Tell us that story.

GF: Sure. So I was looking at a new system that has just been implemented in Utah for the first time called the PSA tool. And essentially what this tool is designed to do is find a way to think about the assignment of bail in a new way. And in a way that creates more equity and is less about how much money you have, or how much money you have that you can use to post bail, and more about what is the actual risk of flight of an individual. So what's their risk of, you know, why do we set bail? Well, it's because if someone is accused of a crime, and they've been brought to court, we want to make sure they'll come back to their court date. And we want to make sure that if they're released that they don't re-offend, or especially that they don't re-offend in a violent way, that they're not a risk to the public. So the bail system should, if it's working the way that it should, it should prevent that. It should put people behind bars that either have a higher risk of flight that aren't going to come meet their court date, or that are, if released, probably going to commit another crime or probably going to harm someone. But the experts I talked to — it's both locally and nationally — are saying the way the system works now, it really is much more about whether or not you can afford to get yourself out because you personally or family have a lot of money. But it doesn’t have a lot to do with those risk factors that I mentioned. And so this new tool, which has just been implemented, is designed to use an algorithm. So it sounds a little bit like AI. But it's not quite because it's not thinking by itself. But it's using a mathematical model to determine the risk that an individual presents in order to assign a bail that makes sense. So maybe for some people, that's a super high bail because that person has so much risk. And this tool will spit out a number and it will tell you, this person definitely needs to be kept behind bars, no bail at all. Or maybe it's no bail because this person is a mother of four that's never committed a crime before and has no risk, right. So that person doesn't even need a bail though they'll come back, right. And so it's trying to give judges more information about whether or not this person really needs bail. And the point of this is to eliminate the fact that, as it stands, many, many people who sit behind bars are doing so simply because they cannot afford to get themselves out.

BM: Often when they're not even violent offenders or, as you said, they’re first-time criminals, nonviolent, and once they’re in that system, then it gets harder and harder to get out. You used the example of Kalief Browder — tell us just a real quick snippet of that.

GF: So the summary of his case was that he was a teen who had been arrested for being — after he was accused of stealing a backpack and the whole time he claimed that he didn't do that. But he, because he couldn't — the bail was set at $3,000, I believe. And he couldn't afford it. His family couldn't afford it. He lived in the Bronx, and his family didn't have a lot of money and they couldn't afford to get him out. So he sat behind bars awaiting his trial and was actually shipped to Rikers Island, one of the sort of most notorious prisons and spent his time in prison awaiting trial. Again, he has been accused of it, he hasn't been convicted of anything. He's not actually serving time for a crime. He is just waiting to go through that trial process. And the whole time he's still maintaining that he hasn't done anything. And so he spends three years behind bars there, is beaten by guards, has some really terrible experiences. And eventually, you know, it comes out that there's not enough of a case to press against him. And all the charges were dropped. He's released but his life is, you know, I think he was really a young kid, I don't remember exactly what age it was that he was put behind bars, but it was still in high school. And so he gets out and it's like, his whole life is disrupted — his education, his life dreams, right. And he's had these horrific experiences and his life sort of spirals out and eventually he commits suicide. And he was one of sort of the biggest catalysts for a movement towards bail reform and the implementation of tools like the PSA tool to say people like that who haven't, who maybe haven't done anything, shouldn't be sitting behind bars simply because they can't get out. Rather, this person who doesn't present very much risk or any risk should be able to go back home to their families and await the trial, and if they're cleared, they're cleared.

BM: This is one of those that is getting some good bipartisan support back in Washington — you have very interesting coalitions. You have Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky and (Sen.) Cory Booker from New Jersey and (Sen.) Dick Durbin from Illinois, and Sen. Mike Lee from here in Utah, and (Sen.) Bernie Sanders. So like you have the whole collection of folks who are all saying, this is something that needs to be dealt with. And again, I think the important thing for our listeners to keep in mind is looking at that from a 30,000-foot level, most people are not going to really feel much about it. But you hear a story like the one you just shared, where literally, someone went in at 16, didn't commit a crime, but was accused of a crime. Spent three awful, horrible years and ultimately ended up in suicide. It's that individual story that really matters in the end. All right, I want to get to one last topic in the couple of minutes we have remaining. And that's dealing with refugees. Again, a very easy one for us to look at and say, Oh, my gosh, there's, you know, millions of refugees around the world. And we just kind of shrug our shoulders and say, well, that's too bad. That's really awful. I feel bad for the refugees. But this also is one that gets down to that personal level, tell us some of the reporting you've done around the refugee issue.

GF: Yeah, so I've been doing some reporting on this for about a year. And I think you're so right, that the biggest difference that at least we've seen in terms of people being interested in willing to engage with issues around refugee resettlement is to make things individual and personal because, you know, people do tend to have that reaction. They sort of want to turn the page when it's another sad story they don't feel like they can do anything about. But people do feel like when they connect to an individual, maybe someone that they feel like they have something in common with, that there's a lot more empathy, that they find that they want to engage, and that there's a way for them to feel inspired to do something. So a lot of the reporting I've done this year is focused on those individual stories.

One of the most interesting stories and powerful stories that I had the chance to report was about a family living here in Utah who is really affected by the affordable housing crisis here. And I think a lot of the refugee reporting that is out there that's really great, often focuses on either refugees in their home countries, and sort of the terrible things that they're facing, or refugee policy here at home, how many refugees are being resettled? Whether or not refugee policy should be the way it is. But I don't think there's enough reporting on what is it really like for refugees, once they come here, what is it like to adjust to life in America? We occasionally do hear sort of the American dream story, you know, or rags to riches, bootstraps, all these things. But often they kind of come to this country, language barriers, trauma, all sorts of obstacles that they already kind of have. And then they're thrown in with the rest of the challenges facing many Americans who are not refugees or immigrants, things like being able to afford rent, finding a reasonable job that can pay enough to feed your family.

And so this was a family, a Congolese refugee family of 11, and I spent a month or two reporting the story with them and getting to know their family and was really moved by how hard this family was working to make it here. And they've been here about five years. But how difficult it was for them to just simply provide for their 10 children, and how difficult it was given that, you know, the father of the children was working in a deli, and he was only making $9 or $10 an hour and his kids needed, you know, boots for winter and winter jackets. And there had to be enough rice and beans for the family. And simply doing those everyday things and being able to put food on the table was so difficult for people who had already been through so much. And it was quite stunning to hear. And not just from them, but from other families I talked to say things like, I'd rather go back to the camp, you know, I spent 19 years in the camp. And I'd rather go back there, where, by the way, you know, it's no walk in the park there. And the fact that they were saying, well, at least, you know, in the camp, I might have had a tent, and that's all I had. And it might have been, there might have been disease, and there might have been not enough food. But at least you know, I didn't have to worry about paying rent for my tent, because that was provided and something that was — that was just so — I was so taken aback because I think we think that this idea of the American dream is so easy, it's so reachable. All you have to do is come here and it's this milk and honey idea. But when you come here, and you ultimately feel as a refugee that you should, I think, feel that you've been given sort of this new lease on life. And instead, the obstacles here are so challenging that you feel like your life before, in this terrible situation, was actually more manageable. That tells me that there's something broken about the way that we are able to provide a better life for people like refugees.

BM: Wonderful. Great. Great insight, Giillian, I think it's so true for many — it's easy for those of us who have lived here forever to think well, they got here, you know? Just buck up and go for it, you'll be just fine. It's the American dream. But I think a lot of those refugee families do end up running out of energy before they run out of opportunity. Because it does seem so hard. And it is such a push to integrate and to engage and to move that forward. Well, great, great reporting. Gillian, thanks so much for joining us today. You've shown us one, some really critical issues around adoption and religious liberty and LGBT rights. We talked through the criminal justice reform and then some of the refugee components. Critical issues, very important, and they're all very, very personal. They're all about people in the end.

Listening to Gillian tell those three compelling stories really reminded me of what Adam Smith wrote over 250 years ago, because he asked his readers to imagine how a man of humanity in Europe would react to news of a dreadful earthquake in China killing millions. And he said, you know, that person in Europe may regret the calamity in theory. But as long as he never sees the victims, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of 100 million of his brethren. And it's this idea that we have to start thinking small. That, you know, one is actually greater than 1 million. Now, I happen to be really bad at math. So one being greater than 1 million is not a stretch of the imagination for me. But it's actually an important principle. We see fundraisers use this all the time. They know if they're talking about things in the millions, people just disconnect. And we actually saw that — we saw that back with the Syrian refugee crisis, half a million people died in the civil war, everyone kind of shrugged their shoulders, said, oh, that's awful. That's terrible. But then there was the image, the visual of that one Syrian boy dead on the beach, who drowned as his family tried to make that crossing from Turkey into Greece, and everything changed.

And it is when we get down to that individual story. Everything is different. And so going from one to 1 million is a heck of a lot more than a fundraising secret. It's really the formula for how each of us should approach some of the critical issues of our day. And so listening to Gillian, you know, we talked about this case in Michigan, and what's going on with this adoption agency and dealing with LGBT couples. And there's so many opportunities there that again, if you're looking at it from 30,000 feet, you kind of shrug your shoulders and say, well, that's too bad. That's unfortunate. Yeah, someone ought to do something about that. But when you get down to the individual, are we really looking out for the best interest of the children? What is the thing that we can do that will be best for these kids? And that would allow both sides of the argument to get past the purity test, and really step forward into real compromise and real solutions, because it really challenges, and I think one of the things we have to do in this country is we really have to challenge people to not settle for the extremes, to not settle for, there's only one way to do this, not settle for the all or nothing battles.

I actually think the Michigan case should have been done way before it got to court because it can, and it could. And if we're in the best interest of the children, we need to challenge everybody's principles. What's the principle you're driving on? And if that's the principle, let's get to the right kind of solution, the heartbreaker for me as I listened to Gillian talk about this young man at 16, who suddenly spends three years in one of the worst prisons in America. That is life-altering, life-changing experience that ultimately ended in a very early death, and not just the tragedy of the death. One of the things that I hate more than anything in this world is waste. Hate waste. I detest waste. When I was a business consultant, it drove me crazy to watch organizations waste resources, to waste market share. But the waste that I detest the most is the waste of potential, human potential to make a difference, to live a great life, to pursue their own dream. And that's often what we're seeing in the criminal justice system. And Gillian pointed that out, that look, we've got to start doing this differently. I love they're looking at all kinds of things, including some artificial intelligence, and some algorithms to just change the status quo. And if we were to look at that through the lens of an individual, as opposed to, you know, there's 60,000 first-time offenders across the country today, where are they going to end up? Let's focus on those individuals. Who’s that 16-year-old who may even be wrongly accused of a crime? Who may end up not being able to maximize their potential because of a system. That's inexcusable here in America. That, to me, that's one of the most important Therefore, what's, is that we have to engage on these issues.

And then finally, talking about the refugee crisis. And it's hard for a lot of these refugee families to fully integrate and grab their version of the American dream and to become part of it. But if all we do is sit back and say, well, there's too many, we're having struggles as it is, then America stops being America. We stopped being the place that really does invite the poor, the downtrodden, the huddled masses yearning to be free. But that takes each of us. It reminds each of us that this is about individuals. And while we may not be writing law, or creating public policy, or speaking at forums, or writing opinion columns, or doing any of those things that seem to be engaged in a lot of these critical issues. Every single one of us can do something today for an individual, for the one, and whether that's a refugee, whether that’s someone in the criminal justice system, whether that’s someone in an adoption setting, all of these are places that each of us can make a difference. And to me, that's the ultimate Therefore, what? So after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, what? Don't miss an episode, subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening and be sure to rate this episode, leave us a review and pass it along. Follow us on Deseret and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for The Deseret News. Thanks for engaging on Therefore, What?