Rita's blog

One amazing gentleman


Mike Givens

One person, one voice can make all the difference. Mike Givens, my dear friend and dedicated Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption board member was that person – that voice. Yesterday we lost him to a horrible illness – much too early – but in the 14 years that I knew him, he made an impact on foster care adoption that far exceeded the work of hundreds, and what most could achieve only in a lifetime that was much longer than his 58 short years.

If you knew Mike, you knew that he was gentle, but forcefully protective of the causes and people he loved. If you were a friend of Mike’s, you knew he was always there for you no matter what else was going on in his life. If you worked with Mike, you knew that he indefatigably looked for ways to do more, to do better, to rise above business as usual.

For 14 years, we were honored to have Mike, one of the largest franchise owners in the Wendy’s system, as a member of the board of trustees of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. About once each quarter I would see the 612 area code pop up on my phone, and I knew it was Mike checking in. “What do you need?” was always the first thing he asked, “How can I help?” And then he always had an idea for how we could help more children.

His annual golf tournament generated more than $10,000,000 for the Foundation, allowing us to actively support Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and the North American Council on Adoptable Children in the Minneapolis area, as well as many other programs and efforts of the Foundation. He used his restaurants as a platform to both raise funds and awareness for this cause. He leveraged his natural leadership skills to engage many more in the conversation of foster care adoption.

One of his proudest moments was receiving the Angels in Adoption award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption. There was no one that year more deserving.

I will miss Mike’s unconditional kindness, his brilliant business mind and his passion for the children we serve. Mike always shared that he started his work in foster care adoption because Dave Thomas asked him to. I believe he stayed with the Foundation because he learned that the children we serve needed his voice, his protection, his love.

We lost a sweet soul yesterday. Mike Givens’ legacy at the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption continues on through the lives of hundreds of children who now have homes, who now know love, and whose lives have been forever changed through his dedication and generosity. Yes, one person, one voice can make all the difference. May we each strive to follow his example.



Or, how to quit making excuses and do our job

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When I talk to audiences not familiar with the child welfare system, I share startling numbers – more than six million children last year were involved in reports of abuse or neglect and more than 400,000 were in foster care. And today, 101,000 children are waiting to get adopted. These are children, I explain, who have been abused or neglected at such a level that they have been permanently severed from their family of origin and are now simply waiting for a family to adopt them. As I speak, I witness these truths sink in through quiet gasps and concerned faces.

This is not the only crisis our children experience. My explanation continues: Each year we fail more than 20,000 children, as we make excuses for not finding them adoptive homes. We allow them to age out of care without the family we promised. And I watch my audience’s concern turn to confusion and then anger. How could we fail already vulnerable children? What happens to these children? Why is the system not working for so many?

Why indeed. Child welfare status quo has neither prevented children from the harm of abuse, nor has it assured that each and every child, once permanently removed from their family of origin, will have the forever family they deserve.

This is a shared responsibility – our children, our communities. So how can we do better, together?

  1. Dispel the myth that children are in care because they have done something wrong. We know through our research that 50% of Americans believe this to be true. These children are victims of abuse or neglect, and through no fault of their own, become “system kids.”
  1. Act like each of the 101,000 children is one of your own – we only want the best for our children and we should want the best for all children.
  1. Question child welfare “business as usual” methods, including photo listings, adoption fairs, or other general practices that recruit potential families into a wide funnel. These methods have not halted the number of older youth emancipating from the child welfare system, and simply aren’t working
  1. Believe that every child and youth, whether they are in preschool or are a 17-year-old senior in high school, needs and wants the comfort, security and safety of a family. Know that 18 is not a magic number. Even adults need family.
  1. Understand that families are as diverse as the children in foster care – single parents, older parents, same sex parents, racially, ethnically and spiritually diverse parents all can adopt and provide a healthy and loving family for a child.
  1. Remember how you felt as a child – when you were lonely or scared or tired or hungry – and then think about someone calming you, holding you, telling you all would be fine. Children in care are suffering from the trauma of abuse and separation, and from unimaginable grief and loss. Too often, no one is there to comfort them.
  1. Demand policymaker, child welfare head and community leader accountability. If a child ages out of care, ask: Who is taking this personally? Who feels responsible? To whom can the child look and ask, “Why don’t I have a family?”
  1. Ask every candidate for office – from presidential to congressional to gubernatorial to city council – what will you do to make children’s lives better, particularly those who are most vulnerable and with the fewest resources available to them?
  1. Ask a youth who aged out of care what he or she experienced and what can we do to make foster care better. And then listen. And then tell your policymakers and child welfare leaders what you have learned.
  1. Consider the fact that you just might fall in love with a waiting child, if you open your heart and home. Find out how to adopt or ask your local agency how you can help.


Honoring Marian Wright Edelman for International Women’s Day


I am joining the call to #makeithappen. As remarkable women around the world are recognized during International Women’s Day 2015, I can think of so many who have created, influenced, advocated and led, with passion, grace and focus and who have paved the way for each of us. But, the one woman I must honor is Marian Wright Edelman. For decades, Ms. Edelman has paved the way for women to become leaders, has advocated for the rights of disadvantaged Americans, and has dedicated her career to being a champion for children.

Many years ago, as I was beginning my work in child abuse prevention, I came across a poster from the Children’s Defense Fund, with a message so compelling that, to this day, it is seared into my memory. It featured an image of a baby with a bull’s-eye on its diaper, and read, “When it’s budget cutting time, they always start with the easiest targets.” Ms. Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement and to “challenge the United States to raise its standards by improving policies and programs for children.”

Through the years, Ms. Edelman’s accomplishments in the legal and human rights fields have underscored her diligence to serving our nation’s youth. Millions of children have as their voice the woman who founded an organization that simply demands that we must “ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.”

Marian Wright Edelman accepts no excuses when addressing needs of children and youth. It is our duty to make their safety and well-being a priority. Through research, independent analyses and meaningful statistics that represent the state of youth in this country, Ms. Edelman continues to lead important conversations among decision makers. Her team at the Children’s Defense Fund team is both dynamic and heroic, challenging ineffective policies or inadequate funding and demanding that we stand up for our nation’s children.

Let’s all work toward making children a priority in Congress, in our communities of faith, and in our cities and assure a safe and nurturing place for each child to grow and thrive, as we honor Marian Wright Edelman for the 2015 International Women’s Day.

Every child


(Huffington Post) – Every child deserves a home. Yet the child welfare system does not have a sound record of developing best practices for serving children and youth waiting to be adopted who have been identified as “difficult to place” — older youth, children with mental or physical challenges, children in sibling groups, children of a minority culture or race and/or youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered (LGBT).

And we know that there is an elevated risk of these children aging out of care simply because of who they are, what they have experienced or the borders that define them.

For example, children self-identified as LGBT in the United States today remain at risk for intolerance, bullying, abuse and homelessness. One study found that more than 30 percent of LGBT youth reported suffering physical violence at the hands of a family member after coming out. The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services has estimated that 20-40 percent of youth who become homeless each year are LGBT. And of the more than 100,000 youth ages 12- 8 who are in foster care, an estimated 10 percent are LGBT.

Jonathan was one of those children.

Just after Jonathan turned 10 years old, his father was incarcerated. Although initially placed with his grandparents, they ultimately notified the children’s services department that they did not feel comfortable keeping Jonathan because of his openly transgendered presentation. He was returned to foster care and began a long journey bouncing from foster home to foster home, with a total of nine placements. Jonathan lived each day knowing that whatever current placement he was in, it was tenuous at best. Something he would do or say would end in yet another move. This had become his life; believing that staying in a place long enough to unpack and feel a small sense of belonging would result in losing it all at a moment’s notice.

Eventually, Jonathan’s case worker contacted Sandy, a child-focused recruiter supported by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. You see, a decade ago, the Foundation shifted its focus from supporting “business as usual” to practices that more effectively serve children and youth who are most at risk of aging out of care. We developed a groundbreaking child-focused recruitment model to serve youth who are older, part of sibling groups, or have special needs.

Jonathan’s case worker asked Sandy if she could find a placement for a transgendered teen. Sandy said yes, explained the child-focused recruitment program in detail, and Jonathan moved — for the last time — to Sandy’s caseload.

At the time, Sandy had recently met Scott, a potential adoptive parent who was interested in adopting siblings under the age of 8. After she shared a little of Jonathan’s history with Scott, he instantly wanted to meet him. The recruiter carefully avoided stressing the concept of adoption; preferring instead to allow the relationship to blossom naturally. Jonathan was very loyal to his biological family and felt adoption would be disrespecting that loyalty. On Christmas Eve of that year, Jonathan moved into Scott’s home.

Scott’s family had a long-standing tradition of everyone wearing new pajamas on Christmas Eve. Scott’s parents were so thrilled with Jonathan that they wanted him to participate in this tradition. His “grandma” asked thoughtfully, “Do we get Jonathan boy pajamas or girl pajamas?” For the very first time, Jonathan was loved and accepted for the person he was.

Over time, Scott carefully and lovingly involved Jonathan with extended family members and some friends Jonathan now refers to as his aunties. They gave him a makeover, helped him pick out a new wardrobe and gave him guidance on how to remain safe in the community. Jonathan made new friends and kept them. Jonathan was home and he began using the name Erica, the name that will be printed on her adoption papers.

On Father’s Day, Scott emailed the recruiter saying how surprised he was that Erica just said she loved him and wanted him to be her dad. When it came time to terminate parental rights, both Erica’s mother and father were in attendance to give their blessings. Erica’s dad had been clean from substances and wanted to apologize for the pain and heartache that his choices created throughout her life. The road was cleared and a new family was formed.

Youth in foster care are by default in a unique and difficult situation. Children and youth who are labeled as “difficult” or “unadoptable” simply because of age or circumstance no longer have to wonder if they will have the birthright of every child — a family and a home — when served by child-focused recruitment.

It’s our duty as Americans to take care of children. Our children. Children who have suffered abuse and trauma, sometimes just because of who they are. But they’re just kids. Kids who need love and support to grow, thrive, and eventually contribute to society.

Who needs the love and support of family? Not just some children. Every child.

(Original article here.)

We are abandoning children in foster care


In our unrelenting drive to focus on older youth waiting to be adopted and the injustice of allowing 20,000+ to age out of care each year, we are excited to share our President and CEO’s opinion column from CNN.com. Help us spread the message by sharing this story and infographic:


(CNN) — In 2012 in the United States, 23,439 children in foster care turned 18 and were “emancipated” or “aged out.” In simple terms, most of them were put out into the world on their own without housing, financial assistance or emotional support.

Take Adrian, now 27. After being placed into foster care at 6 because of his mother’s drug and alcohol abuse, he stayed in care, moving from home to home, until he was 18 and too old for the system. He found the strength to try to put himself through college, using the county van his caseworker helped secure to move there.

His roommate got to go home on school breaks and had a mother who called to check in on him. Adrian had no one to call when he struggled at school — nowhere to call home, no one to send a gift, no one to see how he was doing. He worked nearly 60 hours a week just to pay for college, and when eventually his grades slipped, he was kicked out. He struggled with the ups and downs of depression. As Adrian said of children in foster care: “We are not equipped to go through this world alone.”

In 2012, U.S. authorities received more than 3.3 million reports of abuse, representing about 6 million children, or 8% of the child population. From those reports, after investigation and intervention, about 400,000 children were placed in foster care, and of those, nearly 60,000 were permanently taken away from their families of origin.

These are children who were neglected or abused by parents — physically or sexually or both — so egregiously that a judge permanently severed the parents’ rights to claim the children as their own. Terminating, or legally ending, the right of parent to raise a child is not something a judge decides lightly. In fact, parents receive every legal, social and system opportunity to keep their families intact — too often putting the child at risk of emotional or physical harm.

Because we know that children thrive in families — not institutions or transient, temporary care — we made a promise to those children. We promised the day they were permanently separated from their families that we would find them new ones. A place to call home, to be loved, supported and cherished, as every child should.

These are children who were neglected or abused by parents … so egregiously that a judge permanently severed the parents’ rights to claim the children as their own.
Rita Soronen

We failed 23,439 children last year, and legally emancipated them from care. This world is not an easy place for children to grow and thrive on their own. Too often it is not even safe place.

Make no mistake, many dedicated and skilled adults step forward to care for these children, as their social workers, counselors or temporary foster parents. Some even stay connected once a child leaves care.

And some states have worked hard to extend foster care to 21, but resources for older youth are limited and difficult to access. A Health and Human Services report found that the federal Foster Care Independence program meant to help foster children make the transition to adulthood is inconsistent from state to state and provides too little for these troubled young people. And it simply is not a substitute for a family.

Considering the trauma these children have endured at a young age, the moves from foster family to foster family and the abandonment they feel, it’s no wonder they are at a higher risk for a grim future.

Conservative studies find one in five will become homeless after 18; at 24, only half will be employed; less than 3% will have earned a college degree; 71% of women will be pregnant by 21; and one in four will have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of United States war veterans. And too often, many are at risk of moving back into government systems — from juvenile centers to prison.

Renee, now 25, was young when her mother became addicted to drugs and could no longer care for her and her brother. They were placed in foster care, moved around within the system, and eventually aged out. She had nowhere to go after foster care.

Now on her own as a young adult, she’s facing obstacles that could have been avoided. Renee told me that, “For children who have never been on their own before, they’re really in a bad situation once those first few months of support stops. If I can’t pay a bill, who’s going to help me pay it? I had to be a trailblazer, that’s all I knew. It was a survival tactic. I still feel like I don’t have any guidance. Everything for me is trial and error, and I hate that.”

And for Dante, it was really very simple: “I just wanted a family and a home,” he said. After nearly 12 years, he left foster care with neither.

There is a cycle of violence and helplessness innate in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. foster care system. And yet millions of Americans are unaware that thousands of children remain in this cycle, and those charged with their protection fail to commit to better solutions for educational and vocational support, employment, life skills training and secure homes.

It is our duty as a nation to end this cycle. We made promises to these 101,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted that we would find them safe, supportive homes. We must take the lead and work harder to do that. If children have been permanently separated from their families and freed for adoption, it’s unacceptable that they end up without one.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and is followed in May by National Foster Care Month. Take these opportunities to call your U.S. representative or senator, speak with your state representatives or write a letter to your governor to urge them to focus on the foster care system to make the health, safety and welfare of children in their states an uncompromised priority.

We can make the life of each and every American child a cause for celebration and joy. We must demand justice and safety at every level for children, not only because it is their basic human right but because those who grow and learn in just environments and with the protection of families ultimately create humane and thriving societies as adults.

Read the article on CNN here.

Wendy’s Wonderful Kids: A melancholy milestone



Anniversaries are just a little bittersweet at the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. This month, we mark 10 amazing and important years of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, yet I am keenly aware that we have not done enough.

As we honor the 4,076 adoptions that are the direct result of the work of our recruiters – people across North America who are passionate and dedicated, and who too often face overwhelming system barriers –  there were 23,000 children we failed last year; 23,000 children who turned 18 and left foster care without the families we promised them.

We are bringing our child-focused recruitment and evidence-based best practice to scale in Ohio, serving nearly every child age 9 and older who are waiting to be adopted. And while we celebrate Ohio’s leadership for recognizing that getting these children adopted using this strategy is not only good for their children, but also for the state’s budget, I remain challenged by other state administrators who hesitate to embrace change and who still believe that children are unadoptable.

Through 10 years of ever-evolving public services announcements, toolkits, social media messaging and advocacy for our most vulnerable children, and as we elevate the conversation and work to engage anyone who has an interest in the well-being of their communities, we still struggle to assure the children we serve that they will be the number-one priority for those in positions to make a difference.

From policymakers to faith-based leaders, educators to health care providers, governors to service groups, we can and must insist that children who have already suffered the trauma of abuse and neglect, who have moved too many times in transient foster care, and who simply want what Dante, a 17-year-old Wendy’s Wonderful Kids child said to his recruiter the first time her met her, “I just want a family and a home,” will have just that.

It is not only the right thing to do, it is the best we can do, and they deserve nothing less. Children don’t have 10 years to wait. Neither do we.

Breaking child welfare barriers across state lines


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At the Foundation, we manage a robust national resource and information exchange, which allows us to respond to trends and recurring themes in the requests that come to us for help. The frustrations that surround interstate adoptions frequently rise to the top of challenges confronted by families adopting from foster care.

An important strategy in child welfare is to find local families for children near their schools and friends. Frequently, though, willing and qualified parents, including relatives, are not located in the same jurisdictions as the child. Federal law makes it clear that states are not allowed to use jurisdictional barriers as a justification for delaying or denying permanency for a child, and both the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997  and the Safe and Timely Interstate Placement of Foster Children Act of 2006 underscore states’ requirement to consider interjurisdictional placements.

To protect children and manage the child welfare procedures for those who are placed across state lines, there is an Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC). Drafted and enacted more than 50 years ago, the ICPC is statutory law in all 50 states, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and establishes uniform legal and administrative procedures governing the interstate placement of children.

According to the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), “the purpose of the ICPC is to ensure that if a child is moved across state lines, that child’s rights are protected as if they were in their home state and all legal requirements are observed. The ICPC is designed to provide a monitoring mechanism during the transition and placement of the child in another state; ensure the child receives services; ensure compliance with the laws of each state; and provide the child with an alternative should the placement prove not to be in their best interest, or if the need for out-of-state services ends.”

This is where the clarity often ends and the frustration begins. Bureaucratic complexities, state financial disincentives, lack of uniform home studies, lack of training of professionals in the process and procedures of ICPC, delays in placements during processing, and a lack of uniform document and procedures between states and antiquated systems  all contribute to frustrations for parents waiting to adopt.

In 2005, and in response to these very issues, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption partnered with APHSA to shepherd a revised ICPC through the 50 state governments, and provide materials and technical assistance to state legislatures concerning the introduction and passage of the new Compact. Today, fewer than 20 states have passed the new Compact (35 are required). So inefficiencies and outdated systems remain in place.

There are passionate and skilled individuals in every state who want nothing more than to efficiently, effectively, and quickly place children where they will be loved and nurtured. Families must become dedicated and vocal advocates for children and work with judges, guardians ad litem, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) volunteers, and others entrusted with a child’s best interests. And the caseworkers assigned may have varying degrees of expertise, but ultimately should be your best advocate for information, barrier-breaking and assistance. Working together, children will have the families they deserve.

A detailed link to state ICPC contacts, websites, definitions and state codes can be found at http://icpcstatepages.org/ .

And of course, the nearly 200 child-focused recruitment adoption professionals supported by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in every state, D.C., and throughout Canada stand ready to help assure that every child waiting to be adopted will be, regardless of borders.



Someone like me1. You find the system is frustrating, difficult to understand, and seemingly unresponsive to children’s needs.

Many of you shared something similar to these challenges:

“I hope that the system gets easier. A close friend has fostered 2 young children for 2 years and hopes to adopt – ages <1yr & 3yrs. They are the only true parents these children have ever known. The court system just keeps giving the birth parents (the father tried to kill one of the children – court documented) another chance even though the birth parents never visit, rarely call, live transiently, don’t come to court, and are not able to hold down jobs. This is why the foster system is frustrating!”

“My husband and I started the process almost three years ago. We are very frustrated with the foster care system. I just turned 42 and James is 52. We’ve been together 25 years – no children together though. We have a completed and approved home study and we are having the most difficult time getting matched. I can see if we were turning children away but we are not. We are very open to any gender, nationality, and age range from infant to 12 years old. And, with as many children in the system as everyone keeps saying, we still can’t seem to be matched. Definitely something wrong!!!!!”

Too often it feels like we give parents too many chances to get their children back, — at the risk of them lingering in foster care. Judges will always adhere to the law when it comes to parental rights, but frequently a child’s best interests get lost in the mire of legal procedures.

It is critical that every child involved in the child welfare system has dedicated advocates – from a CASA/guardian ad litem, whose sole responsibility is to protect a child’s best interests, to the assigned caseworkers, foster parents and the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter, if one is assigned.

Foster parents must be involved in the process and have every right to attend court hearings. It is important to push for a dynamic and open relationship with the child’s caseworker – an easy flow of information about how the child is adjusting, doing in school, responding to parent visits, etc. It not only helps the caseworker be a strong advocate for the child, but assures that the court receives full and accurate information to determine the best place for the child.

At the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption nothing makes us more upset than when we hear qualified and excited potential adoptive parents are either ignored or not considered for children waiting to be adopted. That’s part of the reason we created Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. By funding adoption professionals in organizations in all 50 states and D.C., we have an “army” of advocates working diligently to match children with families. Please contact us for a recruiter in your state and we will get you connected! You can also see a list on our website.

2. You are concerned about international adoption versus domestic adoption from foster care.

“In my opinion, I think it is wrong for people in this country to adopt children from foreign countries when we have thousands of children in the USA that need homes. Let’s take care of our own first.”

The mission of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is to dramatically increase the adoptions of children from North America’s foster care systems. We work every day to put in place evidence-based awareness and practice programs that aggressively move children out of foster care and into adoptive homes, and are singularly focused on those children most at risk of aging out of care – older youth, children in sibling groups, children with mental or physical challenges and children of diversity.

We are honored to be working on behalf of more than 100,000 children waiting to be adopted in the United States. But we are also keenly aware of the millions of orphans worldwide who are innocent victims of war, violence, famine, AIDS, poverty or neglect. We celebrate any adult who steps up and takes responsibility for a child without a family, regardless of the borders that define that child.

3. You are wise, compassionate and want to make a difference in the lives of children.

We were incredibly moved by the responses of strangers to this young person:

YT: “I’m 17 years old and when I was in foster care I was always afraid that if I go to someone other than family they would put me out as soon as I turn 18 or that nobody would want me or my sister who is 15. I thought they would not want us because we both aren’t the healthiest children. I have neurological issues which makes me learn a little different; my little sister has a circulation issue in her legs, something wrong with her blood, and a heart murmur. We are back with our mother now but I can’t help but wonder would things be different if we weren’t … My question is who would adopt us with all these issues? And when we are considered grown will they abandon us?”

SE: “Hi YT. I hesitate to post this because I know a stranger posting on the internet may not mean much. I can’t answer your question exactly but I can tell you how I feel – I am currently in the process of getting approved to be a foster parent. Without knowing you or your sister or your situation at all, I feel pretty confident saying just this: Someone like me would adopt someone like you.I don’t want only ‘healthy’ children or a healthy family because to be honest, there is no such thing. I have my own health issues, and so does everyone else in my family. Some more severe than others, some are physical, some are neurological, and yours may be different, but they all exist. I’m watching my family age and change and so often it seems to change only in areas of loss – people get older, people move away, families argue and split up … but I realized it could also change for better, and by adding people. I have extra rooms and I hope I would have something to give to someone like you and at the same time, I believe someone like you has something that I value as well – I think friendship, family, and love don’t depend on perfect health and are even more needed. So what my overly long answer isn’t saying very clearly is that yes, I do believe those people exist. Though I’m glad your mom is doing better.”

There are no “unadoptable” children.– Every child deserves a family and a home. And they deserve the lifelong commitment that family brings – at age 2, 12, 20 and beyond. Our bodies are imperfect, but our spirits demand the love, compassion and acceptance that only a family can provide.

With our movement into a new year, the board and staff of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption are even more committed to driving a national conversation and indefatigable action to assure that every child has a family and a home, and that no child wonders where they belong.

How can I educate my adopted children’s school about their needs


What are the steps to become an adoptive parent?


This is our inaugural Facebook Question of the Week. Thank you to so many of you who posted your questions. This week, our question comes from Toni Kartikis who asked, “What are the first steps we should take in preparing to become adoptive parents?”

I’m eager for the chance to answer many more of the question we have received already. If you have a question for me, post it on our Facebook wall and I’ll answer it in the coming weeks.

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