By Rita L. Soronen, President & CEO
One year ago, our world changed dramatically and in ways we could never have imagined as COVID-19 spread, closing schools, shutting down businesses and leaving us with unrelenting separation and longing for the physical connection of family and friends.
As the pandemic raged, we also confronted our role in understanding and addressing the issues of racial injustice and systemic racism, reignited by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and too many other deaths.
Without question, it has been an incredibly difficult time for all of us. But for children in foster care waiting to be adopted, who have endured abuse, neglect, countless layers of trauma and, too often, the impact of racism and injustice in their young lives, the effects of the pandemic and the events of the past year have been profound.
Last March, with an immediate need to focus on children in care, we elevated the national conversation to consider what it is like to be a child who is facing such a range of crises without the stability and security of a permanent family.
We listened to our youth in foster care. And talked to the press to ensure that among all the competing national needs, children in foster care did not fall through the cracks — again. Those waiting for permanent homes reported feeling scared, anxious, frustrated and alone. Some were living in institutional or congregate care settings and were cut off from outside visits. Many had to leave dedicated foster families due to a foster parent’s sickness or financial hardship, or were challenged by lack of resources to effectively move to a virtual school environment. And some who had been matched for adoption, watched their finalization hearings be further delayed or canceled.
Pivot and Persist
When the pandemic hit, the staff of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption also quickly changed how we worked, in an aggressive pursuit to serve our children without pause or interruption. We simply could not stop, with thousands of vulnerable children in urgent need of permanent, loving homes.
Through our Wendy’s Wonderful Kids® program, the Foundation supports the hiring of adoption recruiters who serve the hardest-to-place youth in foster care, including teenagers, children with special needs and siblings. Without our help, many of these young people are at risk of aging out of care at age 18 or 21 under normal conditions and are left to navigate life on their own. Now, imagine aging out into a world reeling from the impact of COVID-19 with no family and no safety net.
So, when COVID-19 prevented in-person visits to adhere to local and state safety guidelines, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters and the Foundation’s teams of support found creative ways to stay connected with the youth in their care and to keep permanency efforts moving. For example, a recruiter in Texas dropped off lunch to the children she serves, then sat in her car and ate with them over video chat. A recruiter in New York sent a box of books to a teenager on her caseload, and they started a book club together. And recruiters across the country pushed systems to keep allowing children to move into their future permanent homes and to proceed with adoption finalizations, virtually. We also worked with many jurisdictions and states to encourage moratoriums on youth aging out of foster care.
“Many youth I work with haven’t had anyone they can trust until I come into their lives,” shared Shantell, a recruiter in New York City. “It’s heartbreaking. But it also energizes me to find them the safe, loving homes they deserve.”
Because of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters, like Shantell, and the Foundation’s caring community of committed donors who responded to our call, more than 1,000 children have been adopted through our program since March 2020, in the midst of this life-altering pandemic.
1,000 children, like Jermesha, Floyd and Jermain in Oregon were adopted. After being separated in foster care for nearly five years, the siblings were adopted virtually in May 2020.
They’re no longer wondering if they’ll feel safe at night…if they’ll have to move again…or if they will have someone in the morning to call mom or dad. They now have a forever home — together.
1,000 children, like Daisy, were adopted. After spending the first two decades of her life without a permanent place to call home, Daisy was adopted in June 2020 through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. It was Florida’s 100th virtual adoption since the pandemic started.
“Before I was adopted,” Daisy shared, “I felt like I wasn’t enough. I had this hole in my heart, and I never really knew why. I never knew what I needed to patch that hole until my mom asked to adopt me. There is no hole in my heart anymore.”
Daisy’s story is a powerful example of why the Foundation’s work is so important, especially right now. No child should linger in foster care or face a crisis without a family who they know will always be there.
In a year filled with so much uncertainty, I am grateful for the unceasing dedication of the Foundation’s staff, board, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption professionals, partners, judges, donors and others across the country in helping to move more than 1,000 children out of foster care and into loving, forever families.
But our work is far from complete. Right now, more than 120,000 children in the United States are still waiting to be adopted. And while many of us can see light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, the effects of this crisis on youth in foster care will linger for months and years to come.
We know that incidents of reported child abuse have gone down significantly during the past year. But we fear that abuse and neglect are simply going unnoticed as children have been kept home from schools, doctors and other mandatory reporters. As states and communities open back up again, we could have many more children coming into the foster care system. The need for safe and loving foster and adoptive parents will be greater than ever.
During one of the most difficult times in our nation’s history, we worked relentlessly to help give thousands of vulnerable children a forever home and the chance for a brighter future. And more than ever, we believe that no matter what challenges come our way, by continuing to work together, by striving much harder for just and equitable systems and communities for our children, and by staying committed to our core belief that every child deserves a safe and permanent home, we will honor and achieve Dave Thomas’ vision of hope for those children still waiting to be adopted — and fulfill the dream of a family and a home.
Every child deserves a safe, loving and permanent family. Donate now to help give children still waiting in foster care the foundation for a brighter future.