Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
Foster youth in the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption’s Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program are three times more likely to be adopted than those not involved in this unique, child-focused model. So far the initiative has helped 222 Ohio kids find forever families.
Dave Thomas Foundation’s “Child Focused Recruitment Model” Proves No Child is Unadoptable
Each year about 26,000 teens “age out” of the foster care system, having never been adopted by a family. Many will struggle to make it: statistics show that these teens are at high risk for drug use, homelessness, unemployment, and criminal activity.
Throughout 2002-2003, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption undertook a major national listening project to try to determine why so many youth were not being successfully placed into adoptive families. “We got back both obvious and subtle answers,” Rita Soronen, the Foundation’s President and CEO, reports. “As expected, we heard about the limits of time and resources: caseworkers being overloaded. But we also learned that there were perceptions among the professionals and the public at large that some kids are thought ‘unadoptable.’”
Armed with these insights, the Foundation designed a pilot program in 2004 to address both the resource issue and the perceptions. “We knew that the stats show that by age 9 the likelihood of a child being adopted plummets. But we didn’t believe that any child was unadoptable,” Soronen says.
The Foundation encouraged foster care/adoption agencies in seven pilot sites, including Columbus, OH, to implement its newly designed “Child-Focused Recruitment Model” and provided grants to underwrite the experiment. Early results were so promising that the Foundation expanded its private grant-making to groups replicating the model in all 50 states. In so doing it was helped by hundreds of Wendy’s franchisees around the country, who raised donations from customers for what became known as the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids initiative. Nationwide since inception, the program has led to over 3,600 permanent adoptions at an average cost of $12,000 to $13,000 per adoption (compared to $25,000 annual cost for maintaining a youth in state care).
At the heart of the model is the commitment of a professional “adoption recruiter” developing close relationships with “hard to place” kids. “The typical caseload among caseworkers in an agency might be as many as 60 youth,” Soronen explains. “But in our model the recruiter’s caseload is about 20-25 children.” This enables the recruiter to “dive deep” into the child’s case file, seeking leads that could help with finding an adoptive family. The recruiters develop an active network of those adults whose lives intersect with the child’s (teachers, CASA volunteers, social workers, coaches). They pursue a “dynamic recruitment plan” that is reviewed monthly, working hard to connect with the youth’s relatives or former foster families where appropriate. They also encourage older youth to give adoption a chance—as some have become weary or distrustful and have resigned themselves to staying in the system. Additionally, the recruiters submit monthly data into a Wendy’s Wonderful Kids database, assuring aggressive accountability for their caseloads, while providing ongoing trending information and statistics for the Foundation.
In 2006 the Foundation partnered with an independent research team from Child Trends (Washington, D.C.) to conduct a rigorous, multi-year assessment of the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program. Researchers compared nearly 1000 youth in the program to children in foster care waiting to be adopted, with similar demographics but not in the program. In October 2011 the Foundation received the results. “Child Trends found that, overall, children in our program were 170 percent more likely to be adopted than those not participating,” Soronen says. “Meanwhile, among older youth, that figure was 300 percent. The model works!”
Officials at the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS) were impressed by these outcomes. With its private dollars, the Foundation was underwriting seven recruiters in the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids initiative in the state in 2012. ODJFS issued a $2.3 million grant to enable the Foundation to increase that to 35 recruiters. “The state knows that it makes sense to invest in the front end of the system—to try to get more kids adopted,” Soronen says. “They told us that they expected their funding to ultimately save the state more than $100 million in costs associated with keeping these children in care until age 18 and allowing them to age out without a family or a home.” Recently DJFS issued a contract of over $3 million with the Foundation to expand the number of recruiters to 50.