Child-focused recruiters can speed adoption for kids, especially older ones, who languish in foster care and risk "aging out."
A new study suggests that so-called "unadoptables'' -- older foster children with disabilities, behavior problems or siblings -- can find permanent homes, even in states such as Minnesota, which has lagged behind others in placing children.
Foster children were 1.7 times more likely to be adopted when "child-focused" recruiters helped them find new parents, according to an analysis of Wendy's Wonderful Kids, a project sponsored by Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, who was adopted as a child.
The program could dramatically cut the number of kids languishing on foster care rolls, and Wendy's officials said the study is proof that it should be expanded, even though it already operates in all 50 states.
"I believe there is hope for every child in foster care," said Rita Soronen, chief executive of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
A wealth of research indicates that foster children struggle if they do not find adoptive homes and they "age out" of the system after they turn 18, as well. They lack education, struggle to find stable jobs and are more likely to commit crimes and be victims of them.
In Minnesota, the median time to adoption is 13.8 months for foster children whose parents' rights have been terminated, according to 2010 federal data. Only Virginia and West Virginia left children with longer waits. The national median is 9.9 months.
The Wendy's program is spending more than $280,000 per year on four adoption recruiters in Minnesota. Their "child-focused" recruiting approach means spending more time with the children, learning their goals and needs, and helping them to realize that adoption is often in their best interest, said one of the local recruiters, Cimena Gordon.
"These kids have been through so much. They've had so much trauma in their lives," she said. "What can we do ... to help them understand that adoption isn't just for babies - that there are families that want older kids?"
Gordon said spending time with foster children allows her to learn about the adults who have been positive influences. Often, she said, kids only know these adults by their first names. She goes through their case files to identify them and whether they'd be willing to adopt.
The study, by the independent Child Trends research center, suggests that the approach works. Not only did it increase the chance of adoption overall, but it tripled the rate of adoptions among the most difficult-to-place foster children.
The Wendy's program operates in addition to eight agencies with Minnesota contracts to provide "child-focused" adoption recruitment and assist county child welfare agencies with their most difficult cases.
The work of these agencies, and other efforts, too, are helping Minnesota make progress, despite its poor ranking relative to other states, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner with the state Department of Human Services. She oversees the state's county-based child welfare system.
The median time to adoption once was much higher, 19.3 months in 2000. The state also has cut the number of children awaiting adoption from more than 1,000 a decade ago to 339 today.
"We do a pretty good job of getting young kids adopted," Sullivan Sutton said. "It's the older kids with [whom] we continue to have challenges."
Sullivan Sutton said a recent five-year partnership with Ampersand Families, a Minneapolis adoption agency, also showed that preparing older foster children for adoption can improve the rate at which they find permanent parents.
Hennepin County frequently uses the Wendy's recruiters, who cost the county nothing because of the foundation's funding. Their caseloads are capped at 15, so they have more time than county workers to spend with foster children, said Carly Cantu, the county's targeted-adoption recruiter.
"It's one more person in there that can help support the kids," she said. "These kids have had a lot of letdowns.''
A unique problem for Minnesota is the inequity between state payments for foster parents and adoptive parents. Financial assistance is essentially cut in half for foster parents if they decide to adopt the kids in their care.
This disincentive shows in federal data: Only 9 percent of foster care adoptions in Minnesota last year involved foster parents. Nationally, 53 percent involved foster parents.
Gov. Mark Dayton and his predecessor, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, proposed changes to equalize foster care and adoption support payments, but the Legislature didn't approve them, Sullivan said.
She said the state is seeking to improve foster care adoptions in other ways. The University of Minnesota is unveiling a new certification program to train counselors and therapists to work with adopted children and to keep adoptive families intact.
A picnic is also scheduled in Oakdale next week to highlight the 588 foster care adoptions in Minnesota last year and to call attention to the children still awaiting permanent homes.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744