Following is a conversation between Rita Soronen, President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption has been known as the voice of foster care adoption for years. And with us now to tell us about their work is Rita Soronen, their President & CEO.
Good evening, Rita, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Rita: Thank you so much. Good evening to you.
Denver: The Foundation was, of course, founded by Dave Thomas. Tell our listeners who he was.
Rita: Dave Thomas not only is our personal hero, but he was the founder of the Wendy’s® restaurants across the United States. So people may know him best, if they’ve been around for a little while, as that face of Wendy’s in commercials. But what people may not know is that he was also adopted. And so, as he was moving into the latter part of his career and really looking at how to make sure that the company gave back in a way that was significant, and what felt natural to him was to pursue this topic of adoption, but not just every kind of adoption– foster care adoption.
And so, he created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992 as an independent nonprofit public charity that would have one singular focus: that was to elevate the conversation about foster care adoption, about the children in the system, about the process, and why we need to focus on children in foster care and those who have been freed for adoption…why it’s an important conversation.
So Dave Thomas really was remarkable in two ways: as an astute businessman who really created an incredible brand, but had the foresight to think about community as well.
Denver: What a wonderful legacy! How many children, Rita, are there in foster care in America who are waiting to be adopted?
Rita: Today, the most recent numbers are there are more than 125,000 children in foster care who’ve been freed for adoption. The important thing to remember about that is these are children who are in care through no fault of their own. They’ve been abused or neglected or abandoned, and the abuse has risen to such a level and has woven through the courts and this child welfare system to the point that parental rights – the ability of those parents to have access and rights to their children – has been legally terminated by the court.
And so, these are essentially legal orphans in the United States just waiting for people to step forward and take them on as their own.
Denver: You know, in addition to that stress that you talked about with their families and having to be separated for the reasons you cited, what are some of the more consequential impacts you’ve seen on children who’ve been in the foster care system?
Rita: Well, in addition to those children who have been freed for adoption, we have in excess of 400,000 children who are in foster care. So those children who we hope can go home, right?
They’ve been experiencing perhaps…across the nation, there’s elevated numbers of parents who were involved in substance abuse, the opioid epidemic, which renders them almost impossible for them to parent appropriately; so children are removed and placed in foster care. But what we need to do is make sure that services are in place so that those parents can parent again. That’s the best place for children, right? It’s their original home, if they’re safe and they can be cared for.
Because what happens in foster care too often is these children move from home to home. They linger in care while services are being applied to families. And every one of those moves, every one of those separations from something known and comfortable, creates trauma for a child. And that’s the last thing we want to do in a system that’s designed to serve them is create further harm or trauma.
Those are the kinds of things our children experience in foster care. And so, we want to minimize the time they are in care; we want to maximize the supports that their families have; and first and foremost, we want to get them home. But if we can’t, then we want to get them adopted as quickly as possible.
Denver: I know all those children who are eligible, you do want to see adopted and find a permanent home and loving family. But with that said, do you have a particular focus on any group of children?
Rita: We do. We, a number of years ago, began to look at: Where is the most specific need that the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption can address? And it’s this number that year over year in this country really keeps us up at night. Every year, around 20,000 older youth, children turn 18 and leave foster care without the adoptive family we promise them.
Now, we know their long-term outcomes are not really good, and not because they’re not good kids, but because they don’t have the safety net of every other 18-year-old who has a supportive family around them. And so, they’re at a much more elevated risk of not being well-educated, of being unemployed, of being homeless, of becoming early parents.
And so, we really wanted to focus on that population of children and youth: children aged nine and older; children in sibling groups; children who have special needs; children who are most at risk of leaving foster care without a family. And we began doing that over a decade ago to really focus evidence-based programs, awareness, and activities around these children.
Denver: Rita, give us a little idea of how you work. What exactly do you try to do, from the beginning of this process to the end, in getting these kids homes?
Rita: That’s a great question. First and foremost, we want to make sure that the public is informed about these children, that the myths and misperceptions that surround them are addressed.
For example, we know, based on a survey that we did a couple of years ago on Americans’ attitudes toward children in foster care and waiting to be adopted, 46% of Americans believed children and youth are in care because they’ve done something wrong, because they’re juvenile delinquents. If they believe that, then they’re not going to step forward to perhaps help with the system. So, we’ve got to remove those stigmas first and foremost, and we do that through education and conversation, social media, all of those kinds of activities.
But then we created a program a number of years ago, in order to use our funding much more appropriately in a streamlined way, to provide resources to organizations, to hire full-time adoption professionals who utilize a model we’ve created, particularly for this focus population of children and youth, that has shown at an evidence-based level to be much more effective at getting these children adopted– children in sibling groups, children with special needs, older youth.
And so, that’s where we put the majority of our donated funding, is in this program. And we called it Wendy’s Wonderful Kids® because our Wendy’s partners stepped up and helped fundraise in their restaurants to help support this program.
But today, we’re funding more than 450 of these adoption professionals in all 50 states and in Canada who work caseloads of the longest-waiting children and get these children adopted.
Denver: Fantastic! Are there any changes in public policy that you would like to see?
Rita: There is an adoption tax credit that’s available to everyone who adopts. One thing that we’re working on now is making that fully refundable, so that those folks who could qualify on an income level could get that full refund and not have to simply not have the resources that they might need to adopt children.
But there are others, more general in terms of: How do we make sure that these children are not allowed to linger in care their entire lifetime? There are some children who go into care at a young age and stay there until they age out. And although there has been federal policy that has addressed that, we still have too many children who linger in care and then age out.
And then making sure that parents who do step forward and adopt, perhaps a 16-year-old, they haven’t necessarily saved for a college education. They haven’t necessarily had the kind of resources around them to provide perhaps post-adoption resources that the child may need… counseling or those kinds of things. So making sure there are a robust menu of contacts and resources for parents who do step forward because these are the children who have experienced the kinds of trauma that they may need some additional help once they’ve adopted.
Denver: Well, speaking of those parents, who can be an adoptive parent of a waiting child? What do people really need to think about and consider when looking to adopt through foster care?
Rita: That’s a great question. So it used to be that adoptive parents were defined as a younger married couple who would step forward and adopt; that’s not the case anymore. Single parents can adopt; same sex parents can adopt. Older folks can adopt. People who perhaps have already raised children and don’t necessarily want to jump into diapers and midnight feedings again, but would absolutely consider a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old.
So, the face of adoption has changed significantly. What we say is: if you’re qualified, if you’re safe, if you can provide those kinds of resources…you don’t have to be wealthy to adopt. If you have a place for a child to live; they can get to school; they can come home and be surrounded by love and support – that’s the kind of qualified parent who can adopt.
Now, it takes a little bit more than that. So, if someone’s interested in adopting, they need to contact their local child welfare agency… adoption agency – we’ve got a list of those on our website, of folks that we work with – and then make that initial connection because there’s required training. There’s required home studies to make sure that the home and the family is safe.
There’s a required period of: What happens? How do I identify a child that is…that I’m the perfect home for that child? How do I make sure that in this placement, that we’re going to be able to stay together for the long term? I think those are the kinds of considerations an adult has to have. Remember that this is permanent. This isn’t just a temporary placement. When you adopt a child, that child is yours as if they had been born to you. And so, keeping that long-term view, as well as understanding: What will it take to have suddenly a 16-year-old in my house? Do I have the kind of family and friend and community supports around me that can help me through this process?
Denver: What are some of the challenges that these young people face once they’re adopted? I’m sure there’s a myriad of them, but are there any that are a little bit more typical than others?
Rita: Yes, particularly children who have been in care for quite some time. Look, they have no reason to trust new adults in their lives. They’ve been abused. They’ve been abandoned. If they’ve moved from home to home or changed social workers constantly while they’re in the system, adults to them are the cause of their problems, not the result of something that could be a long-term benefit to them. So it may take some time to really trust and gel as a family. And I think we tell our parents that there’s a need for patience in this process because the youth has every reason to be distrustful.
And youth – well, look, we’re all homing pigeons at heart, right? They, if they’re older youth, they remember; they know their extended families. So if it’s safe, and if it’s at all possible, the adoptive family can do whatever they think is right because they’re the legal family. But keep in consideration the notion that extended family might be exactly what this child also needs in their life.
And then remembering the kind of trauma that this child has experienced and making sure that they have access to the kinds of resources that the child may need – maybe not the first day, maybe not the first year, but a couple of years into the adoption. As the child continues to grow and their brain continues to develop, there may be triggers or issues that the child is just going to have to work out as they grow.
So just keeping all of those things in mind while they remember that this is a joyous effort, that families are forever, and that these children are so ready and willing to be a part of a permanent family.
Denver: Good points.
Finally, Rita, with so many children waiting to be adopted, what can we do as a society, really as a country, to see that more of these children actually are?
Rita: Well, first of all, we need to know that the issue is there. We need to know that these aren’t someone else’s children over there in that city, that these children are in our own backyard. Learn as much as we can about the process in our communities. And not everybody can step forward and adopt, but people may want to consider fostering, a more temporary care of these children. Or they may want to consider volunteering to become a mentor to a youth. Or they may just want to donate to an organization in their community that makes this work get done.
And then when there is a call to action, as you asked earlier, if there’s policy change that needs to happen right, be informed and be part of that call to action to assure – particularly now, quite honestly, as we move into a very political year – that candidates at whatever level, from council members to presidents, keep children at the top of the agenda and children’s welfare.
So they can be a voice; they can be an active participant in the child welfare system; they can step up and adopt.
Denver: Well, Rita Soronen, the President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, I want to thank you for being here this evening. Tell us about your website and how people can help if they’re inspired to do so.
Rita: Absolutely. Our website davethomasfoundation.org is robust with resources, with connections to the individuals that we work with across the nation, with videos of families that have been formed through foster care adoption. There’s just a lot of information, and so it’s a good place to start. There’s even a beginner’s guide to adoption that they can download or we can send copies to them, hard copies. So, dig into the website.
And then if they need more information, please feel free to give us a call on our 800 line, 1-800-ASK-DTFA. We’ve got professionals here who can help walk them through a process, answer whatever challenges they may have, and get them connected to a local resource in their community. We welcome that kind of contact.
Denver: Fantastic! Well, thanks, Rita. It was a pleasure to have you on the show.
Rita: Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio.