March 26, 2013

A few minutes with Rita Soronen- Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption CEO

The foster care system is complicated.  I think that is something that we can all agree on. It is political, understaffed and difficult and at the center, there are beautiful, precious children who fall through the cracks.  For the last couple of years, we have rallied behind the Dave Thomas Foundation For Adoption.  Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's and later, the DTF, was adopted and spent his life advocating for adoption and children.  He built the foundation on the belief that unadoptable is unacceptable and they work tirelessly to educate people about adoption from foster care and find families for some of the most marginalized children in state care- older children, minorities, special needs children.



Since 2001, Rita Soronen has been steering the ship as the CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.  I was given the opportunity to interview Rita about the work that the foundation is doing to children in foster care.  The brilliance of her answers just floored me.  This is an organization that is getting it right.  I hope that you enjoy getting a glimpse into Ms. Soronen's heart and mind.          

Megan:  In your 12 years leading the foundation, I am sure that you have been privy to some pretty incredible, life changing stories.  What one story stands out to you the most?
 
Rita: First, thank you – it is I who is truly grateful for the opportunity to talk with you!

You are right, we are so lucky to work in this business where we can witness the amazing power of family.  It is at the core of who we are – as individuals and as communities. Each and every day we hear a story that a child’s life has been changed, but just today we received the following email from a parent who worked with one of our recruiters:

 “We are so blessed by the gift your caseworker in ND gave us: Our 16-year-old son. From the conversation about him to our first Skype with him, we felt a connection that I do not think either of us expected so soon. He fits, he is who we have waited to parent our entire life. We love him with our whole hearts. Today we had his unbaby "baby shower" and in two days leave for our first face-to-face visit -- next step home forever. Our son is one of those children who ran the chance to age out of foster care. His history and age made his placement, according to the file, "difficult," but his recruiter never gave up on him. And on December 19th, 2012 we got the call that changed our entire world in a deep and profound way -- we found our son. You will never know the depths of the joy you have all given us, but from our entire beings, thank you”

Megan: Last year on the DTFA Facebook page, I saw a picture posted of the office coffeepot with a note that said something like "Beware, Rita made this" and a caption that noted that the CEO was making the coffee.  In an age where CEO's are sending their assistants on Starbucks runs, that picture told me a lot about the culture of the foundation.  Can you tell me a little bit about how your day runs and the overall culture at the foundation?


Rita: Ha! Coffee is at the start of my day and I do like it just a bit strong! I am so very proud of my small but mighty staff of 16 incredibly talented and passionate individuals who understand the urgency of this work, and to a person, are mission-driven in every effort that they make. Because we are a national nonprofit public charity committed to developing and nurturing effective and dynamic partnerships for the children we serve, my days are rich with coast-to-coast travel, program development and growth, presentations and speeches, meetings (meetings, meetings!), policy planning and advocacy and goal-driven accountability. 

Make no mistake, there are deep challenges that we must confront – tens of thousands of children suffer horrible physical and emotional violence at the hands of those who should be their protectors each day in this country; the child welfare systems in which they are placed are fraught with roadblocks and barriers to their well-being; and state, local and national budget shortfalls too often minimize already scarce resources for children. So as a staff, we work to honor our founder Dave Thomas’ notion that “these children are not someone else’s responsibility; they are our responsibility” by working harder, smarter and with courage to assure a laser-like focus on the needs of the children we serve.

 
Megan: We all know the top excuses/myths for why people don't want to adopt from foster care. (It's expensive, I'm too old, The kids are too damaged)  What are you doing to dispel those and do you feel like you are making headway against all the false information out there about foster adoption?

We know from national surveys that we commissioned that there remain deep myths and misperceptions about children in foster care, the processes that surround them and even who qualifies as an adoptive parent. We have worked very hard to develop our public awareness campaigns (public service announcements, poster campaigns, social media communications, news releases, etc.) in a way that both subtly and overtly dispels these myths while building support for adoption from foster care. We provide all of our materials free of charge as hard copies or as downloadable versions, including a wonderful piece, “Finding Forever Families: A Step-by-Step Guide to Adoption.”

Based on the increased audiences that are ordering or viewing our communications, the busy activity on 1-800-ASK-DTFA and adoption@davethomasfoundation.org, the significant growth in conversations on Twitter and Facebook, and most importantly, the more than 3,400 adoptions that have been finalized through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, I do believe we are starting to see a positive change in perceptions about foster care.

Megan: What do you feel is the number one most pressing issue facing foster children? Facing foster children who are aging out?

Rita: Well, of course, there are simply never enough resources to provide the kind of care these children need. But honestly, we have made a compelling case that by successfully finding adoptive families for children most at risk of aging out of care, we save counties and states literally millions of dollars that could be shifted to family and post-adoption supports. We are too often challenged by public and professional perceptions that these children are too old, irreparably damaged or unadoptable. And we know that by allowing tens of thousands of children each year to age out that they have an elevated risk of being undereducated, homeless, early parents, substance abusers and involved in the criminal justice system. Not because they are “bad kids” but simply because they are forced to navigate this very complex society without the safety net, support and comfort that a family provides –and that every child deserves.

Megan: We have actively been trying to adopt from foster care for almost a year.  When we inquire about children, we rarely get a response from that child's worker.  However, when the child has been represented by Wendy's Wonderful Kids we have gotten a response or follow-up 100% of the time- even if it's just to tell us that we don't meet the criteria for that child. I know that statistics show that having that advocate increases a child's chances of adoption.  What is the process for getting representation for a child?  What are the long range goals for the number of children in the system that you would like to aid in finding families? 

Rita: It is so good to hear that the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters are doing the work that they must do – advocate for children and responding to the potential parents who step forward to adopt. In reality, the child’s case worker should be their strongest and most determined advocate, accepting nothing less than adoption for a child who is available. But we understand large caseloads of children, limited resources, burdensome bureaucracies and the fact so many workers still believe that some children are “unadoptable.”

That’s why we created the child-focused recruitment model and began making grants to public and private organizations across the nation to fund full-time, aggressive adoption recruiters who can be a child’s advocate. We are humbled by the work of the 169 Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption professionals who work alongside a child’s caseworker and are those unrelenting advocates for permanence through adoption -- particularly for older youth, sibling groups, children with special needs and children placed in more difficult environments for recruitment (group homes, institutions or other congregate care). Our long-term rigorous empirical research show that is exactly where the model is most successful – up to three times more successful than business as usual for this group of children.

To date, as we have scaled the program into all 50 states, D.C. and four provinces in Canada, we have served 8,916 children, found matches for nearly 6,000, and 530 are in their pre-adoptive placement with 3,433 finalized adoptions. We are proud of these numbers, but every day remember that 104,000 children are waiting to be adopted, and that last year 26,000 children aged out of the system without the families we promised.

Since we started the program, we have set our goal at 10,000 adoptions and I am confident we will get there!

Megan: If you could suggest reform for just one facet of the foster care system, what would it be?

Rita: Focus on the fundamentals – smaller caseloads, child-focused activities, excellent customer service and a commitment to evidence-based programs that are grounded in research rather than anecdote.

Megan: What is your biggest hope for the future of foster care in America and for the children waiting to find families?

Rita: I have thought about this quite a bit – first we have to commit to supporting families and children at the front end, before they become involved in the system. Prevention, support and zero tolerance for family violence must be a national priority. But the moment a child is moved into foster care there must be a commitment to urgency and a community passion for caring for these children as if they were our own. We should have databases full of potential foster and adoptive parents who will step up and take responsibility as soon as a child is in need. The worst we can do for any child is dim their joy, darken their hope or let them believe that they are unworthy of a family. Childhood is fleeting and every child – particularly those most vulnerable -- should be cherished and defended by parents, policymakers, funders, communities of faith, practitioners and business leaders.  Each of us must be an advocate for children.

Megan: Thank you so much for your time and for your responses.  They are powerful, to say the least.  I'm also putting picking your brain over a cup of coffee on my bucket list! 

Rita: I will look forward to a hot cup of strong coffee and great conversation with you!  Thank you!


Please take two minutes to watch this short video- it is incredible!
 
I'm also writing this week over at What To Expect about the top foster care myths.  We'd like to spread the message that unadoptable is unacceptable everywhere we can!

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