How Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is changing lives in Louisiana
By Donna Edwards, First Lady of Louisiana
Over the past three years, Louisiana has been transforming our approach to foster care and adoption.
In 2016, our Department of Children and Family Services launched statewide implementation of the Quality Parenting Initiative, a team approach to foster care that encourages birth parents, foster parents and agency staff to work together for the best interest of the children.
We know that one of the most meaningful ways we can take care of our children in foster care is by supporting the caregivers who provide for their needs and give them safe and nurturing environments in which to grow. That’s why, in 2017, I launched Louisiana Fosters, a statewide campaign linking government, nonprofits, businesses and faith-based organizations to build a supportive network for the state’s foster children and foster and birth parents. Since then, we’ve seen that network grow from a hope and a challenge to a thriving community of Louisianans with arms stretched wide around our foster children and their caregivers.
This past year, the state took another step in ensuring our children have the foundations they need to gain the best possible start in life by extending foster care for youth, ages 18 to 21, who are working toward a high school diploma or equivalency. A task force is now studying the best ways to allow all foster youth who would otherwise age out of the system to remain in care until age 21.
At the same time, we have set a record for the number of adoptions from foster care for three years in a row. Some of our greatest successes have been with teens and sibling groups. Over the past year alone, we saw a 30.8 percent increase in the number of youth, ages 13-17, adopted from foster care – the highest increase of any age group. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a signature program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, through which eight adoption recruiters have been working across the state, has been an important part of that success.
What I love about the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program is its focus on each child as an individual. In a general adoption recruitment effort, the department searches broadly for families who can provide permanency through adoption for each child, meeting their specific needs or circumstances. The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program uses a Child-Focused Recruitment Model that looks first and foremost to each child’s family and unique history. Who is this child’s family? Who are their friends and neighbors? Who from their school, their church, their community has been an important figure for them? It’s reaching out to each of those connections and asking family members and people central to the child’s life to help find permanency for that child.
Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters can take this very child-focused approach because of the program’s structure. Each recruiter carries only 15 cases, at most, and they follow their children all the way to permanency. In each case, the recruiter partners with a child’s adoption specialist, who handles all the case management – the paperwork, case planning and court hearings. This team approach allows the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter to really focus on getting to know the child – who they are, what they want and need – and build a relationship of trust. It also allows the recruiter to mine the child’s family history and records for any connections that might light the path to permanency.
One recent success story in Louisiana involved two teenage brothers who had been in separate foster placements for quite some time. The recruiter, in combing through the boys’ history and their records, found an uncle who lived in another state. The uncle had not had a terribly close bond with the boys, but he couldn’t bear the thought of them staying in foster care or, worse, aging out of the system with no one and nowhere to call home. Through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, we were able to bring this uncle to Louisiana to visit the boys, to learn about them and their specific needs and to build a relationship with them. And ultimately, their uncle became their guardian. These boys, ages 15 and 17, now have someone in their lives who can provide stability and a sense of family. Someone who is family.
As a mother of three, including one in high school, one in college and one married and settling into a career, I can tell you they never outgrow the need for family. Whether it’s talking about their day, seeking advice on a problem they’re facing, or just having someone there who knows and understands their hearts, who appreciates and values them, loves and encourages them, children never outgrow the need for family.
That’s why, as we work to extend foster care to age 21 for all our foster youth in Louisiana, we’re grateful the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is helping fund an additional Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiter who will concentrate on finding those connections for our youth in care. Every child, no matter their age, deserves to have the love and support of a family.
These are Louisiana’s children – our children – and we must do everything we can to ensure their future. I am so proud of the work we are doing in Louisiana, and I am so grateful for the partnership we have formed with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to implement
Donna Edwards is the First Lady of Louisiana. Dedicated to serving the people of Louisiana alongside her husband, Gov. John Bel Edwards, she has created the Louisiana First Foundation, which serves as a launching pad for programs that focus on educating the “whole child” through Teach MAM (Music, Art