208: National Adoption Month with Rita Soronen of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption Transcript

Episode 208 Podcast > Full Transcript

Lori Holden, Greeting:
This is Adoption: The Long View, a podcast brought to you by Adopting.com. I'm your host, Lori Holden, author of The Open Hearted Way to Open Adoption. Join me as we take a closer look at what happens after you adopt your child and begin parenting them. Your adoption journey isn't over then; it's just beginning.

In this podcast, you'll hear from a variety of thought provoking and influential guests as we help you make the most of your adoption journey. Like any trip worth taking, there will be ups and downs and challenges. Here's what you're going to wish you'd known from the start. Ready? Let's go.

Lori Holden, Intro:
Have you ever eaten a meal at Wendy's? Have you ever perused the list of top adoption-friendly workplaces? Have you ever felt an ache in your heart about children who were in foster care growing up without a permanent family, taking care of them, loving them, teaching them all the things people need to know to be independent and prosper? If so, you may already be acquainted with today's guest, Rita Soronen, who is president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

Dave Thomas founded Wendy's restaurant chain in 1969. He was adopted as a very young child and became an advocate for foster children in his adulthood. Founding the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992 with the mission of finding homes for children who need them.

Did you know that each year, twenty thousand teenagers age out of foster care, leaving them at higher risk of homelessness, unemployment and other negative outcomes? The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Wendy's Wonderful Kids programs are working to reduce that figure.

I'm so pleased today to have Rita Soronen with us. Welcome, Rita.

Rita Soronen:
Thank you, Lori. It's so good to be with you today.

Rita Soronen is President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. She is a founding board member and past Vice President of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and is a current member of its advisory board.

She also serves as a member of Barco’s Nightingales Foundation's Advisory Board and the National Court Appointed Special Advocate, Guardian Ad Litem, Association for Children's Board of Trustees.

Rita is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Angels and Adoption Award and the National CASA Association Kappa Alpha Theta Program Director of the Year Award. She is a fellow of the Jefferson Fellowship for Executive Leadership, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Community Leadership from Franklin University, was named a YWCA woman of Achievement and was honored with Smart Business Network’s Smart 50 Program Award for Impact Giving Back to the Community. Rita resides in Columbus, Ohio.

Rita is such a pleasure to be talking with you during National Adoption Awareness Month. Could you briefly tell us your story of how you became involved in adoption and with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption?

Of course, and thank you again for having us today. Listen, I was one of those kids that came out kicking and screaming, “It's not fair” when it has to do with children. I think I was just born a child advocate. I've not adopted, I was not adopted, but my path took me on very early, more than 35 years ago.

I was on a different professional path and then got diverted very quickly into child abuse prevention. I had just had my first daughter. I was living here in Columbus, Ohio. There was a horrible abuse case of an infant who passed away. And I was just primed at that time to say, “There's got to be something we can do.”

And started out as a volunteer with, which was then the National Chapter of the Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and began to just deeply absorb and learn those dynamics of abuse and neglect and families. And that turned into a full time position. And then later I was so lucky to become the Director of the local CASA Court appointed Special Advocate program. And then about 20 years ago, had the opportunity to come here to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

And through that journey, it was really learning each step of the process that our children experience in the child welfare system from, “How do we prevent children and families from even entering the system? How do we divert them from abuse and neglect efforts?” to what happens when they're in the system and they need to have dedicated advocates, children in particular on their behalf.

To now, here at the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a bit full circle, what happens when those efforts each have failed on behalf of the child and they're simply sitting in foster care, waiting for, quite frankly, the family they deserve. They've been abused or neglected or abandoned, and that abuse has risen to such a level that the courts have permanently severed that right of biological family to that child, and they're essentially legal orphans in this system.

So, it really has been both an organic journey for me; it was not an intentional one at the front end, but it became much more intentional along as I learn and grew and became even more passionate to, I think, just respond to who I was as a person, which was a natural child advocate.

It sounds like you're coming up on the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Can you tell a little bit what the impact has been over those 30 years? What has happened to the numbers of children needing homes finding homes?

It's very much an ebb and flow, depending on what's going on in this country and the economics of this country, and the willingness of policymakers to pay attention, the willingness of the country to pay attention. So, it's been an ebb and flow.

But right now, there are about one hundred and twenty two thousand children in foster care who have been freed for adoption, who are waiting to be adopted. That number has fluctuated for the past 20 years, from somewhere in the below 100s to up to one hundred and twenty five to one hundred and thirty thousand, but it stays in that unfortunate zone of about a hundred thousand children waiting to be adopted.

But what has changed, I think, from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in particular – and we're a national nonprofit public charity – is we started out when Dave created this organization as very much an awareness organization. In 1992, this country was not talking about foster care or the impact of foster care, how to navigate the system, if people were interested in becoming foster parents or adoptive parents. And mostly we weren't, as I think, keenly aware of who these children were and why they were in care, and how could we dispel some of these profound myths and misperceptions that surround these children?

So, we started out very much as an awareness organization created with partners, The National Adoption Day initiative, worked with CBS now in our twenty third year to have an annual special A Home For The Holidays that highlights foster care adoption and began programs like the Adoption-Friendly Workplace Campaign to support parents.

But mostly, began this national conversation; who are these children? Why are they in care? And why is it so critical that everyone in a community, first simply be aware of this issue, and then, if they have the will or the desire or the means to step forward, how to do something about this?

We, about just a number of years ago, began to look though, if our mission is – and it is – to dramatically increase the adoptions of children from North America's foster care system. Lori, if you had come to me in in 2001, 2002 and said, “Rita, how many children did the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption get adopted today?” I wouldn't have been able to tell you. I would have told you all the great work that we were doing with making grants to national organizations, raising awareness, doing public service announcements, creating materials for families. But we didn't know if we were actually making a difference.

And so, we began to create more direct service programs that we could fund out in the community that would directly impact children who we wanted to move out of foster care into adoptive homes.

So, for us, it's been that progression that responds to the need in this country to making sure we moved from awareness to action, but encouraging the public as well, including policymakers, decision makers, child welfare organizations to move from talk to action.

And you said something that really piques my interest because on this podcast, we kind of like to look at myths and dispel them wherever we can. So, can you maybe address some of the myths and misconceptions around children that you mentioned?

You bet. And one of the ones that continues to make me sad, but also drives our sense of urgency - And every few years, we do a national survey of families to make sure that we change – is that majority of Americans believe children are in foster care because they've done something wrong.

One of the most, I think, compelling myths that we've discovered through national research that we do every few years assessing Americans’ attitudes toward foster care and foster care adoption, one of the data points that comes out of that, that we're working very hard to change, is that a majority of Americans believe that children are in foster care because they've done something wrong. In other words, they ascribe fault to these children.

And that tends to happen with older youth, teenagers and perhaps more particularly with male teenagers; older juvenile delinquents. They've done something wrong.

When what we're seeing out of these older youth in foster care are perhaps acting out episodes that are based on the trauma that they've experienced based on the fact that they've moved multiple times in foster care, moved multiple schools are still experiencing the trauma and loss of their bio family and dealing with the abuse that they've experienced. And I would challenge anyone to say who wouldn't be expressing maybe negative behaviors as a result of all of that in their young lives.

And so, we're working very hard to dispel that myth. No child is in foster care because they've done something wrong. They're there through no fault of their own.

Another myth that we dispel – and we celebrate all kinds of adoption, international adoption, domestic infant adoption, any child that needs a family, no matter where they are in this globe, deserves a family. But our particular focus is foster care adoption.

And so, when we look at the comparison of costs between the kinds of adoption, people who are also looking at foster care believe that it's very expensive to adopt out of foster care. I think simply because they hear about the costs of international adoption or domestic infant adoption, which tend to be fairly expensive when you put all of those costs in.

To adopt out of foster care, the agencies that have custody of these children maintain majority of those costs. So, what we say is it can be anywhere up to maybe $1000 or so, simply to go through the adoption process.

Now, of course, there are costs to raise children, but if one of the barriers to thinking about the foster care system is the cost, we simply want to dispel that myth.

And then the last one I think that we hear most often is that why would I jump into the foster care system and adopt if a parent will come back and try and reclaim their child? And I think sometimes that's why people adopt internationally; there is this great distance between whatever the bio family situation was and the United States.

The reality is that these children and families whined through months and months and sometimes years in the Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare System. And when a child is finally freed for adoption, that is a permanent legal status. The families can never come back and claim these children. And so, if someone's fearful of a parent coming back and challenging the adoption, that can’t happen.

Having said that, adopting an older youth does also – I think people should look at – is the extended bio family safe for my child? Because, quite honestly, we're all homing pigeons at heart. We know our families. We crave our families, no matter what the circumstances were right at that point of entry into the child welfare system.

So, I think adoptive families need to understand, no, the bio family cannot come back and try and claim them. But is it appropriate for this child to stay connected to extended members of the family?

So, those are some of those myths and misperceptions that we try to dispel. These children aren't too old, too damaged or too dangerous. They simply need a home of their own.

Oh, thank you for covering those. Those are wonderful, and I absolutely adore what you said about we're all homing pigeons at heart. I think it's really important to recognize and acknowledge that even if there had been abuse and neglect rising to the level of severing parental rights, that that child is still connected to their birth family.

And for us as adopting parents to think that that's otherwise, that that can be folly and we need to honor that connection that they will always have, no matter how good of parents we are. That connection is actually a sign of health, not sickness.

Exactly, that very precious and personal sense of identity. The last thing we want to do is our attempt to rip that out of a child. But it is always what's best for this child. What's safest for this child is the first consideration, of course.


November is a special time for adoption because it's National Adoption Awareness Month. But it wasn't always a month; a full month. In 2000, the National Adoption Day was launched, thanks in part to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, with the original intent of finding permanent families for children in the foster care system.

You've already talked about some of the work that you're doing to help these children. Can you tell us what's going on, on the ground in the various chapters and states that that you've got going?

Sure. One of the key programs that now we are funding in a big way is called Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. And we call it that because again, in 2004, we had made this strategic leap to moving from just awareness to action. And we tried to identify where the gaps in the system, where we can partner and collaborate and make a difference, if twenty thousand children, year after year after year are turning 18 and leaving foster care. These are children who've been freed for adoption, but they're leaving foster care without an adoptive family.

And we began to look at where are the best practices in this country that are successfully getting older youth, in particular adopted, but not just older youth, those children most at risk of aging out of care. We're talking about children age nine and older, children and sibling groups, children with special needs, children who have been in care for so long that they really resist efforts at permanency. When a judge asks, Do you want to be adopted? They say, “No, thank you. I just want to get out of the system.”

And we get that. Some of that is just that normal adolescent development; assert my independence, get out of these confines of adults all around me. But add to that; that trauma that children have experienced, the mistrust in adults that they naturally experience now. We have older youth who push back and don't understand the long view about what a family means to them.

And so, we've identified a couple of practices that seem to be successful, but there was nothing evidence based. And I think that's been always one of my challenges in child welfare. How do we create good programs that also have a substance underneath them that we know it works, based on data based on experience, not just because it looks good, it feels good or seems like it might work.

So, we started a pilot program in seven cities in 2004. And we asked our Wendy’s partners; we’re wholly separate from Wendy's, but we are the charity of choice of the Wendy’s system. And we asked our franchise partners if they might be willing to increase some of the fundraising that they had been doing in their restaurants. And they jumped in in a big way.

And we said, “If you do, here's what we can do. We can give grants to organizations across the nation, public or private organizations, to hire a full-time skilled adoption professional who will work with caseloads of the longest waiting children in those communities and see if this model that we created, that's really just good social work, but allows a lot of tactics to happen because they're very focused on this case load of children. How can we implement this?

So, we started out with pilot project in seven cities in 2004. The Wendy system came through in helping us fund it, so we called it Wendy's Wonderful Kids. That's the brand. But the model is child focused recruitment. We saw very quickly a turnaround of children's cases, who had been lingering here the longest, getting adopted. So, we very quickly continued to generate the resources to grow that program.

And today, we have more than four hundred and seventy five full-time adoption professionals, that we're funding in all 50 states and across Canada, who are dedicated to these children in getting them adopted.

And just at the beginning of this year, even amidst the pandemic, we had a benchmark of finalizing more than ten thousand adoptions of older youth. The average age is about 13. 60 percent are in sibling groups. The vast majority have some kind of clinically identified special needs.

And what makes me so sad is somewhere hovering around eighty five percent of these children had had no efforts on their behalf toward permanency. In other words, they had already been put on the emancipation track or folks had said, “These children are unadoptable.” That shows up in case files all the time from social workers. This child is unadoptable because of a special need, because of a reluctance to get adopted.

So, we're excited about Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and the impact that it's having. We're now scaled. In other words, there are enough recruiters to cover that focused population in those states, in 11 states, and our goal is to have all 50 states scale by the end of 2020.

So, that's one of those programs that we're very proud of, but has gone through this very intense progression from 2004, including a long-term rigorous evaluation from 2007 to 2011 that says this program not only works better than business as usual for these children, but it works up to three times better than business as usual.

Wow. Those are some remarkable statistics of success. So, I can imagine people listening thinking, “Well, I really want to support that” and “Maybe we could do this. Maybe we should look into adopting a child who really needs a home.” So, how would people do this? What do you say to them and what would be their first steps?

I think the first step, and certainly we've got a beginner's guide to adoption on our website, davethomasfoundation.org that goes through some very basic steps. But backing up from that, I think the first step is really taking an internal assessment of your family; what is it that we want to do? What can we do? What kind of child can we support? And I hate to put it in those terms, kind of child.

But what I mean is, can we support a child with special needs? Could we support a sibling group? Am I interested in an older child, a teenager or do I really want an infant?

So, really doing that internal assessment because there's no right answer to that. It's about being very honest with yourself and your family.

Then that next step is, do I have a supportive network around me? Will everyone accept that I'm doing this in my extended family or my circle of friends? Will they be supportive in this process? Because it can be an intensive process jumping into a government system in order to adopt.

And then my strongest sense is there's so much information out there; research, research, research. Try and get connected to folks who have adopted out of foster care. Ask them what their experiences are. Ask them about the good, the bad and the ugly, so that they can understand truly what they're jumping into.

And then begin to identify organizations in your community. It could be a public child welfare agency. It could be a private agency that also supports foster care adoption. Begin those conversations. And essentially interview them; are they going to be a good match for you? Are they going to provide the kind of support that you need?

Those are really those first steps, but it's really about learn as much as you can. Because once you get connected to an agency, they'll also begin to put you through a training program and all of those next steps that are part of the natural process.

I think that's great advice to like embarking on anything big that you would do, you need to do your due diligence. And it sounds like this is like two sided; you got to look inside and then you also need to research what this is going to be like in your community.

What if people listening are thinking, “Well, I don't know if I want to shift my path, but I do want to support the Dave Thomas Foundation for adoption.” How do they do that?

That's great. The first thing we say is, “Be a voice for children in your community. That helps us so much.” Make sure that wherever you are talking to people; whether it's at work – you could talk about adoption benefits in the workplace. If your workplace doesn't offer adoption benefits to families, ask your HR manager, “Why not?” We've got toolkits for that.

Where you go, in terms of expressing your faith. If you are part of a group that might want to wrap their arms around foster or adoptive families or simply learn more about it.

Or at a policy level. Connect with your policymakers in your community and ask how they're supporting the most vulnerable children in the families.

But that next level, certainly if they want to help us do our work as a national non-profit organization, we depend on the kindness and the generosity of donors. And if they feel like this is a good bet for their investment, we'd be delighted to bring them in, help them understand what we're doing.

And if they find that it's appropriate for their family, making a donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is certainly welcomed. 90 cents of every dollar that comes into the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption goes directly back out to services and activities in the communities.

That's wonderful. We’ll, put some show notes links on lavenderluz.com and on adopting.com that have a donate link, the Adoption Guide link.

And one of the other things that you've mentioned is the Adoption Friendly Workplace Toolkit. I do get excited when that rankings come up every year. So, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah. And this was one of Dave Thomas's original, again, kind of organic programs while he was still CEO of the Wendy's company. It didn't make sense to him that a company would offer benefits to families that are formed through birth and not to families that are formed through adoption. Understanding that birth is a medical issue. So, take that aside, why wouldn't you give time off, paid leave to families that are formed {indistinct 22:19} birth? Or why wouldn't you help with adoption expenses, no matter what kind of adoption it is?

So, he began just simply calling his fellow CEOs and asking them to put adoption benefits in the workplace.

We've turned that into a very tactical program of encouraging employers to do that. Look, it's the right thing to do it. It breeds employee loyalty. It just recognizes that in the workplace, there are great numbers of families that are formed through adoption.

And so, we encourage both paid leave or unpaid leave, certainly if it's not in the budget, as well as providing some sort of assistance to families that adopt financial assistance.

Every year, we gather the practices of employers across the country and then issue the 100 Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces that are based on those criteria.

And it's a great competitive list. Look, employers like to be competitive with others. They like to be on lists. So, we were using a little bit of arm twisting on that one. But what it really does is it begins that conversation in very robust businesses, large businesses and small businesses, about what's happening naturally with their employees.

And in addition to those kinds of benefits, we find employers start adding brown bag lunch campaigns for families that adopt or to talk about adoption or there's an intranet for families who've adopted so that they can connect with each other.

So, it's created this web, I think a really nice web, of conversation, of recognition and of public celebration about adoption, simply through the workplace

And on behalf of all the families who have benefited from all the companies who have been on that list over the years, I just am really grateful that you continue to do that and foster that.

On this podcast, we often talk about how adoption isn't nothing. It's not nothing for the parents who lose the child. It's not nothing for those who become the new parents to the child. And certainly, it's not nothing for the child. It's all something. And we do better to acknowledge that than to deny it.

Can you tell us some of the ways in which adoption is something in this particular arena?

Sure. And particularly when you think about foster care and the dynamics that are experienced. Look, so many of our children come into foster care because of substance abuse issues with our families. And it becomes a neglectful situation that rises to the level of moving them into foster care and then separating them permanently.

Without judging those families, it's an insidious kind of habit, substance abuse, but there are yet in this country, not enough kinds of supportive services for those families. And so, it's that toggle between children deserve to be with their bio family, but if they're not safe there, then we have to provide them safety.

So, recognizing, I think the bio families, not every family is that evil, sexual abuser of these children. There are those, of course, but having empathy, I think, for the families that these children come from.

Certainly, understanding the dynamics that this child experiences. And we've mentioned it before, the incredible trauma that they experience. And not just in being separated from their family of origin, but prior to that; the abuse and neglect. Some of our children have had to take care of other siblings in the family at very young ages, and they've had to grow up very quickly.

Some of our children are separated from their siblings, and that should never happen. But that dynamic of that one safety point that I might have, I don't have while I'm in foster care. I don't have my brother or my sister.

So, recognizing the trauma these children have experience- the lifelong grief and loss that they hopefully will express, and come to terms with or continue to come to terms with, with a supportive family.

So, it's not just about marching into a child welfare system. And some of us very, I think, with the best of intent say, “Oh, I'll go in and save this child.” It's a lot more complicated than saving a child from a dangerous situation. It's recognizing those dynamics, recognizing the lifelong effect on the family and on the child and supporting that.

But it's also from a parent point of view. You know, that savior attitude, which is okay; it's an okay driver at first, but it's got to be underscored by a lot of reality. You know, these are children who at times may, without even understanding why, begin to act out in big ways, because of the impact that they've had.

And so, for the parent, I think it's do not be shy about asking for help. Do not hesitate to reach out and make sure, before this adoption is finalized that the social workers that you're working with, have you connected to all kinds of sources of information, sources of support, networks of other families, so that you don't feel alone when, a year down the road, suddenly this child is acting differently than you thought they might have from the get go.

Again, it's not because that child is rejecting you. They're dealing with their own personal journey that they've experienced. So, all of that.

And then, for heaven's sakes, let's have a sense of humor about it, right? I mean, kids are the greatest, no matter what their circumstances. It can be a delightful and joyous experience. And make sure you capture those moments while they're interspersed with what sometimes can be very difficult moments.

And that's all wonderful advice; find a community. And it ties in with just our previous episode before this one was on finding and working with an adoption-competent therapist. You really do want to have one available well before you need it. And adoptive families are a lot more statistically likely to reach out for therapy.

Absolutely, absolutely. That's been one of the programs that we've supported on, our grant-making level, is that creating that curriculum of adoption-competent therapists. It's so critical. To get the wrong kind of help sometimes is more dangerous than no help.

Yeah, I found that sometimes the love and logic doesn't always, you know, that style of parenting is maybe not going to help you connect as well with your child than say connected parenting from Dr. Karen Purvis.


Well, it's time for our last question, and I'm asking this of all Season Two guests. From your perspective, as a child welfare advocate, what do you think people need to know to adopt well and to adoptive-parent well?

To adopt well from the foster care system is some of the things we've talked about already; understand what the system is. Understand that it is a government system. There are times phone calls are not going to be returned or there are times that you feel like the people that you're working with, the professionals you're working with, are overwhelmed and understaffed. And indeed, frequently they are.

But I think if we all keep our eyes on that prize of providing a safe, nurturing, thriving home for a vulnerable and at-risk child, those barriers are worth it.

Now, I don't think anyone should put up with an organization that ultimately is not responsive to them. And so, make sure you find an organization that's responsive, that's supportive, that it feels like it's got a track record of solid experience in moving children out of foster care and into adoptive families.

For the parent, it's again those things that we've talked about; make sure that you not only have a supportive network around you, but you truly understand what you're getting into. And it is again, an incredible experience to think about providing a family for a child or youth that was at great risk of turning 18 and leaving care without a family.

But think about, too, that the first {indistinct 29:51} routine might be considered fostering first, so that you get your feet into the system. You understand what the system is like. You get used to the dynamics. Because frequently, we know that, I think, more than 50 percent of children who are with foster families are ultimately adopted by those families, if they've been freed for adoption.

And so, think about truly understanding the dynamics of this child welfare system, getting your feet wet, either through fostering or through getting as much information as possible, and then just charge into it and say, “I'm doing this not only for the child, but I'm doing this for me. This is what I need and want to do as well.”

That's a great point because it takes you out of the savior area, “I'm doing this all for the greater good.” I mean, I acknowledge getting your own needs met by becoming a parent. So, that's all wonderful.

And understand this is forever. Even though these children have gone through lots of changes in their life. They've moved from foster home to foster home. They've moved from bio family to child welfare. They've moved from school to school. Those children have gone through way too many transitions for any child. This transition needs to be permanent. And so, it's got to be eyes wide open. These are not children, when they start acting out, that we can then send back to the system or should send back to the system.

Eyes wide open. That kind of sums up a lot of it. So, thank you for that. We're so grateful to have had you here for National Adoption Month. Thank you for being here, Rita.

Oh my gosh. I am so honored and so delighted to have this conversation with you. I congratulate your audience for thinking about this conversation of adoption, and particularly what happens once that adoption is finalized. Now, how do I make sure my family continues to thrive in the best possible way? So, thank you for providing that platform.

Thank you.

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