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Unadoptable Is Simply Unacceptable: Evidence-Based Practice for America’s Longest-Waiting Children

Rita SoronenRita L.Soronen, President and CEO, Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption

Summary: Soronen reminds us that concluding a child welfare case with a successful adoption is an integral part of ensuring child well-being. Wendy's Wonderful Kids model of recruitment, matching and support has shown extraordinary success in placing older youth, sibling groups, children with clinical challenges and those at risk of aging out of care.

With 104,000 children in the United States waiting for the families we promised, it is critical that we re-examine our personal beliefs about, and professional responsibilities for, the more than 25,000 children who age out of care each year.

From judges to caseworkers, guardians ad litem to agency administrators, funders to policymakers, we all carry an unrelenting duty to maintain the sense of urgency for children who are waiting to be adopted, to fight against allowing children to linger in or age out of care, and to dispel the notion of unadoptability. We need to check unsubstantiated excuses at the door and look to evidence-based practice that underscores the core belief that every child deserves a family.

The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK) child-focused recruitment model does just that. Eight years ago, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national nonprofit public charity focused exclusively on dramatically increasing the adoptions of children waiting to be adopted from foster care, through a pilot project in seven states. That project utilized a foundation-developed child-focused model of family recruitment, matching, and support. The model was premised on finding a family for every child permanently committed to the custody of the state—with a laser-like focus on older youth, sibling groups, children with clinical challenges, and those most at risk of aging out of care.

Since 2004, our grant commitments have grown to support nearly 150 recruiters in all 50 states, Washington DC, and four provinces in Canada. In addition to providing critical grant resources to public and private adoption agencies, the adoption professionals hired must utilize a model that supports best practice, including smaller caseloads, monthly contact with the children on the caseload and the child’s caseworker, intensive review of case files, due diligence for potential adoptive families, adoption preparation and support for the child and the adoptive family.

We also committed to long-term rigorous evaluation of the effort as we grew the number of grant-based personnel. The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids National Evaluation, conducted by Child Trends, is the only national empirical effort to date that has researched how to effectively find families for children waiting to be adopted. And the results show that the child-focused model significantly and substantially increases the likelihood of adoption, particularly for older youth and youth with mental health challenges.

Specifically, the research found that:

  • On average, a child served by WWK is 1.7 times (or 170%) more likely to be adopted than children served by business-as-usual recruitment and matching tactics.
  • The older a child is when placed on the WWK caseload, the higher the likelihood of adoption—up to 3 times (or 300%) more likely.
  • Adoption for children with mental health challenges increases by more than 3 times.

To date, more than 8,000 children have been served through WWK; 3,166 have been adopted, and another 563 are in their pre-adoptive placements simply waiting for final court hearings. At the time of placement with WWK, these children were:

  • 68% age 9 or older; 45% age12 or older
  • 58% male
  • 63% racial or ethnic minority
  • 20% in a group home, institution or supervised independent living
  • 30% had six or more placements; 9% had 10 or more placements
  • 50% were in the system more than four years; 10% more than 10 years
  • 51% had no identified recruitment activities on their behalf

The success is not just in the numbers, but in the cost impact to agencies, courts and communities. For example, in Ohio, seven recruiters have finalized the adoptions of nearly 200 children (most of whom were at risk of aging out at age 18). Based on the cost to keep a child in care, the age of child at adoption, and all collateral federal and state expenses, more than $31,000,000 is estimated to be a savings to the state, immediately and in the future. Ohio is so committed to the model that the foundation recently entered into a contract with the state to increase the number of recruiters to more than 40. These recruiters are focusing on nearly 700 children age 9 and older, and on those who have been in care for two years or more. The foundation is providing grant management, monitoring, personnel training and data collection to mirror the success realized across North America.

The implications of this program and its evaluation effectively address the fear of creating legal orphans from the bench. They also support shifting resources to provide well-trained and managed workers to make life-changing efforts for youth, and refute the practice of placing tens of thousands of children in the intolerable limbo of independence without family(Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement) without review, or the purgatory of unadoptability.

Dave Thomas reminded us daily that “these children are not someone else’s responsibility, they are our responsibility.” And we would simply add unadoptable is not acceptable.

For more information on Wendy’s Wonderful Kids or the research, go to or call 1-800-ASK-DTFA. Please watch and share Unadoptable is Unacceptable.

Author biography:

Rita Soronen has worked on behalf of abused, neglected and vulnerable children, providing leadership for local, state and national efforts working to improve the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, while striving to assure safe and permanent homes for North America’s children for nearly 30 years. She has led the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption since 2001.

Soronen currently serves on the board of the Ohio CASA/GAL Association, the Public Education Committee of the National CASA Association, is a past vice president of the board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and a current member of the advisory board, and is a fellow of the Jefferson Fellowship for Executive Leadership.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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