Submitted by Kelly Eisenhardt
Helping children move from foster care to permanent homes is a challenge in the United States. Many children age out of the system without ever having found a loving adoptive family. Aging out without the support of a loving family can have negative consequences on a person’s future. The Dave Thomas Foundation is working to connect more foster children with the families they deserve.
Rita Soronen is the President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to raising awareness about the more than 100,000 children in the United States living in the foster care system. Ms. Soronen is focused on developing signature, grant-based programs that quickly move children from foster care to permanent, loving adoptive families.
How does the Dave Thomas Foundation assist in finding permanent homes for children in foster care?
With 107,000 kids in foster care today, the need is greater and more urgent than ever. We realized years ago that when someone steps forward and says that they are interested in adopting a child, it’s important that they have help to get to the right place. Our mission is to raise awareness about the needs of children in foster care requiring permanent homes and to serve in enabling as many organizations as possible in making adoption a reality. Our motto is “Making Unadoptable, Unacceptable.”
We are a national nonprofit that helps other organizations find foster homes for children in need. We help build awareness around the issue and make grants available, while dispelling the myths around why a child might still be in the system.
What is Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and which kids participate in the program?
Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is a program we created to serve children who have been in the system the longest. In order to begin this program, we first had to do some research. We found that by the time a child is referred to Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, he or she is likely to be older than 8 years old and had multiple placements. More than half have already been in foster care for more than 4 years. Other children age out of the program and by the age of 18 or 21 lack the love and support of a secure family.
How did Wendy’s Wonderful Kids begin?
We started the program in 2004 with seven pilot sites. The program grew rapidly and we saw big results when we began to elevate awareness by leveraging our philanthropic partner, Wendy’s. Wendy’s helped us by elevating awareness through their restaurants. Their contributions help fund 215 recruiters in all 50 states and six provinces in Canada. This serves more than 4,000 children today with more than 6,000 adoptions already finalized. The exciting part is that the average age of the children adopted is 13.
We’ve put several videos together that show examples of how children and families come together. Our newest is titled, “It’s Worth It” and demonstrates how a family and child connect. Foster care adoption is not easy, but it’s worth it. https://youtu.be/PjWxFy1guF4
Unadoptable is Unacceptable is another video that gives a comprehensive breakdown of how our Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program works. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLP3pAfCHgo
In your research, did you find answers as to why some kids stay in the system so long and then age out?
Yes, we did. We had to ask some tough questions. We knew there was more to the story than the children themselves.
We needed to know why workers weren’t getting children adopted. We needed to understand the challenges the case workers were having in placing children. Digging deeper, we found that there was no evidence of bad practices. The issue turned out to be something different.
The issue had to do with children who were in the system after a certain age. The data supported the fact that after a child turns nine, the likelihood of adoption decreases. This holds true even more so for sibling groups, children of color, and children with disabilities.
Most adopters think about a younger demographic when considering adoption. Several studies have been completed that verify this fact. People can read Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: as well as Foster Care Indicators on Child and Youth http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/12_Foster_Care.pdf to get a better understanding of why children age out of the system.
We also learned that results varied based on different models of the system. We learned that the child-focused recruitment models used in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s defaulted more to making the child fit the family versus the best family fit for the child. This did not aid in getting children out of foster care and into permanent homes.
In that method, children who were in foster care tended to be on public display and making their story public made them feel even more traumatized and rejected. Better social care is a core value for us.
Can you explain your grant making model and the ways in which adoption agencies can be helped?
The grants we issue serve several purposes. We help organizations get full-time adoption professionals and provide funds so that they can triage children in immediate risk, in addition to evaluating foster care, dealing with the court system, and promoting emotional wellbeing. We give grants to organizations that focus on the children’s needs first and help find families that are the best fit. It takes time to build a trusting relationship with the children. Most of them are separated from their families have been in the program 12-24 months. It takes time for all parties involved to assess what might be best for the child.
One of the benefits coming from the grants is the ability of case workers to keep the number of children they oversee to 18 and below. This gives them more time to learn everything about the child, meet with them monthly, and get to know what the child needs. With this deep dive, case workers can ascertain the best placement whether that be former foster families, extended family members, former teachers, neighbors, a best friend’s family or even a new person in the community. The money also helps in ensuring that the case worker has the time to prepare a child and their new family for adoption and their new journey together.
What are the two myths about foster care adoption you with you could eradicate the most?
There are so many myths.
Research tells us that potential adoptive families are afraid that the birth families will come back to court and claim the children. People need to know that is not true. When children are freed for adoption, every legal action has already been taken by the parents and the courts. The biological parents no longer have rights. Families can step forward and adopt children who have been permanently freed for adoption. Adoptive families can choose whether or not to let the child see the biological family - if it is safe. Children who are older do remember their biological family and may on occasion want to see them. This is an agreement between all parties involved.
Another myth, is that adoption is expensive. The reality is that there are little to no costs to adopt a child from foster care because they are currently in the care of the state. Sometimes there is no cost at all. The main cost is to raise a child, as we all know. In addition, keep in mind that there may be supports, subsidies and adoption tax credits to consider.
Lastly, the myth that children are too old or too damaged to adopt is one of the worst. Many children had a tough start in life. They are children who need the safety, comfort and the love of a family that can love them back. It is no fault of their own that they are in foster care. They are there because their family was unsafe and they had to be removed. There are in need of a safe environment to grow up. They’ve suffered great loss and it is our job to help them.
Can you share with us information about your top two signature programs, the Adoption Friendly Workplace and National Adoption Day?
Dave Thomas started the Adoption Friendly Workplace program. He thought about all the benefits offered to new families like medical and birth paid leave, time given to care for an infant, and then he wondered why a business didn’t have the same programs for adoption. He thought there should be an adoption benefits package and so he created one. He championed the program with corporations and started the “Top 100 Best Adoption Friendly Workplace” list. Because Dave understands value, he championed a common platform to bring adoption into the light.
National Adoption Day was an obvious program from the very beginning. Immediatley we thought, why don’t we set aside a day to celebrate adoption? With the thought of family being around for holidays, we set the date for the Saturday before Thanksgiving. By making it a national day of celebration, we also normalize the concept of adoption making it less scary to people. In 2000, we had nine cities participate. By 2015, there were more than 400 events in 50 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. Last count, we had more than 4,500 adoptions finalized around that day and since the year 2000, more than 58,000 children have been adopted on a National Adoption Day event. If you’re interested in attending your city’s celebration, visit nationaladoptionday.org.. Adoption is meant to be woven into the fabric of our communities.
How can people learn more about your organization?