No Child Left Behind

For approximately 101,000 children awaiting adoption in the foster care program nationwide, their ninth birthdays are not cause for celebration. That’s the arbitrary but powerful statistical cutoff when their chances of finding permanent homes drop precipitously. And despite the perception that adoption usually takes place at infancy, the average child in foster care is already eight.

They frequently deal with developmental issues due to the neglect and abuse suffered during childhood, and according to Rita Soronen, CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA), as they age they often no longer want to be adopted, convinced it’s just another step in the vicious cycle. Each year nearly 26,000 leave the system at 18 without ever finding a family.

“The majority of the children … had never had anyone do any recruiting, any family recruiting for them – nothing,” Soronen said. “They had simply been freed [from their birth families] for adoption and lobbed into this sort of purgatory of just waiting for them to age out of care.”

Only half of those who age-out are employed at 24; one in five goes homeless for a time; and they’re far more prone to substance abuse and jail. One study estimated that the cost to society is nearly $8 billion per year.

DTFA, a nonprofit charity, has been working since 1992 to help children in foster care find adoptive homes by creating awareness and awarding grants, but executives weren’t sure if they were achieving the dramatic results they sought. They began delving deeper and found there were very few industry-wide best practices. Overburdened social workers were saving children from their unsafe birth homes but couldn’t put forth the resources to find adoptive families for many of them.

So DTFA created the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK) program, which funds agencies so they can hire full-time adoption professionals, provided that they use a child-focused approach. These agents develop one-on-one relationships with children to learn about their individual experiences, needs, and wishes, and then they aggressively seek exactly the right family for each one.

The program launched in Columbus and six other locations around the country in 2004, drawing on a partnership with Wendy’s restaurants to provide money through countertop change canisters, coupon programs, and other fundraisers. Wendy’s and its customers now provide a vast majority of DTFA’s annual budget, nearly 90 percent of which goes directly to program services.

DTFA also commissioned a study to find out if the new methods were actually working, and in 2011, the report revealed that children were up to three times more likely to find adoptive families through WWK’s program. Older children and those with mental health troubles benefitted the most.

Today there are 194 WWK grant-funded adoption professionals across North America, including 45 in Ohio, which currently has 2,655 children in foster care (365 in Franklin County). DTFA partnered with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, and from 2004 to 2012, $3 million in WWK funding helped save the state $31 million in foster care expenditures. Nationally, WWK has placed close to 4,000 children with permanent adoptive families. The foundation is now in the process of scaling up its program at state and federal levels to become the standard for adoption rather than an alternative.

“The day that we legally separated these children from their parents permanently, we also made them a promise,” Soronen said, “because no child deserves to grow up without a family in this country.”

For more information about the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, visit www.davethomasfoundation.org. Check them out on social media at www.facebook.com/DaveThomasFoundationforAdoption and@DTFA on Twitter.

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