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Rita Soronen and her team at the Dave Thomas Foundation, have dedicated thier lives to helping orphans find safe and loving families. The impact of thier research and work, have helped countless families come together.
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The Privilege of Family with Rita Soronen, Executive Director of The Dave Thomas Foundation
Welcome back, listeners. We have an incredible person with us. Rita, thank you so much for coming on. Tell the listeners a little bit about yourself.
Thank you, Jon. I’m delighted to be here. I’m Rita Soronen. I’m the President and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The foundation, although located in Columbus, Ohio, is a national non-profit public charity with a singular mission. Our mission is to dramatically increase the adoptions of America’s children out of the foster care system. We work every day in this complex world of child welfare, abuse and neglect in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and work to make sure that every child who’s in the foster care system and has been freed for adoption has a home.
I remember when we first met, you shared some incredible statistics about the foster care system adoption and even the integration in the prison system. Could you share a little bit about this?
We hear stories of abuse in the news and we hear stories of parents who have harmed their children, but every year, more and more children fall into these systems. For example in 2017 in this country alone, there were more than 6 million reports of abuse or neglect. That’s physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect where a child is not getting the food, the care, the support that they need. More children die from a neglect than physical or sexual abuse, but 6 million individual reports to the police, to child welfare agencies. Of those reports, about 420,000 children actually are removed from their home and placed into substitute care because the agencies that investigate the abuse have found that these children are not safe in their homes. Of those children, as the courts do their work and case workers do their work and children are in some sort of substitute care, and they’ve already been abused or neglected and now they’re in a stranger’s home typically. Of those children, about 111,000 children today in this country, the abuse has risen to such a level the family is so unsafe that the courts have permanently and legally severed the rights of those parents to parent that child.
We have 111 legal orphans in this country, aged birth to eighteen, who’ve done nothing wrong other than tried to grow up in a family. Now, they’re in this legal limbo of waiting for a family to step forward and adopt them. The average age of a child waiting to be adopted in this country is about eight. They linger there for years waiting for someone to adopt them. This is the statistic that really drives our work. Year over year over year, 20,000 of these children turn eighteen and they leave the foster care system without the family we promised them. We make this implicit promise that the day that we’ve severed the parental ties from that child, we will find them an adoptive family and we fail 20,000 times each year. That’s where negative consequences begin to happen. Not because they’re bad kids, but imagine anyone that you know at age eighteen or think of yourself at eighteen on your own trying to get to work, trying to pay your rent, trying to figure out the complexities of this world. Those kids are at a much higher risk of being homeless, of being undereducated, of being unemployed and frankly of moving into negative behaviors like substance abuse or criminal activity.
Not to further stigmatize the misperceptions that already surround these children because they’re not bad kids. They are kids that deserve everything that every other child does. If they move into systems because they don’t have the safety net or family, when you look in any prison, what you will find is the vast majority of the inhabitants there have either spent some time in foster care or have experienced the kind of abuse that would otherwise have sent them to foster care.
First of all, that’s just staggering. When people hear this, I’m assuming they want to do something. What can we do? Personally, I’m a single, 37-year-old guy. I don’t think I’m in any state to be able to adopt a child and to take care of one, especially one that’s suffered abuse and needs special care or attention or to be educated in how to deal with that. What is it that I can do?
I think there are so many options of how we can help these children. First of all as a nation, we have to establish childhood as a priority and all of those things that are necessary for healthy children. Safe homes, excellent child care, quality education, the fact that they have food on their table and a house around them. We have to take as a first priority at an advocacy level with our legislators, our county commissioners, our mayors, our governors, whoever is in a position to make decisions on behalf of children and that’s virtually every leader, business leaders and faith leaders. We have to have the singular message that first and foremost, children must be a priority.
Advocacy is always a route, using your voice, using the written word, whatever people can do to have a collective voice on behalf of children. At a much more specific level, there are always opportunities in child welfare agencies and adoption organizations to volunteer, to mentor a child. That might just be once a week or once a month to volunteer to help with a holiday package for children that don’t have holiday packages or a school backpack to put one together, to volunteer at a homeless shelter, those kinds of active community engagement. Then there’s always the easier route. Donate to an organization that is working long hours and every day on behalf of those children so that they can continue to grow and do their work. There are lots of opportunities to help. Just having it in our collective consciousness and talking about it and encouraging others to gather together and help children is the first step.
I want to first of all dispel some misnomers and also explore a bit about this incredible work that you’ve been focused on over the past few years. The Dave Thomas Foundation, everybody knows Wendy’s, the restaurant chain. Wendy herself was an adoptee, right?
No. I love it when people say that because she actually sits on our board now. It was her father. It was Dave Thomas who was adopted. He was adopted as an infant. He spent just a couple of days in foster care. His story was one that parallels our older youth in foster care. His adoptive mother passed away when he was very young. His father remarried, but he was a transient worker and he was raised by his grandmother, Minnie, throughout his life. At age sixteen when his father was going to move again, Dave Thomas said, “No, I’m not going to move.” At age sixteen, he was literally on his own making his way. He didn’t finish high school. In fact, he finished his GED as President and CEO of The Wendy’s Company just to show other kids that it’s never, never too late to get your education. What he understood was I think uniquely that target population of children that we focus on every day, older youth in foster care, because even though he had an adoptive family and he will tell you that he was what he was because he had family, he also understood the unique needs of our older youth in foster care. He named the restaurant after Wendy, but she wasn’t adopted.
What’s interesting is that everybody expects that a few pennies of every burger go to the foundation, but that’s not true, is it?
No. In fact, he was so wise in setting up the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year. He set us up as a national non-profit public charity, not a corporate foundation, not a family foundation, not a private foundation. He did that for two reasons. It would force us to get out and engage the public in this conversation and help dispel the myths and misperceptions, elevate the awareness about children in foster care, but we had to go out and raise funds as well. While we did that, we have to be able to tell a good story to get a donor interested in us, so he was very smart. Having said that, the franchise system, the Wendy’s supplier system, the Wendy’s corporate employees are deeply committed to this cause. For example, if you go to a Wendy’s restaurant, you could have purchased a Halloween coupon pack and when you take those coupons back, you get a free frosty. For $1 to purchase those coupons, you make a donation to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The restaurants engage customers, which just enlarges this message with their millions of customers about foster care adoption and then helps us raise funds.
I remember these coupons from my entire childhood because we would collect them and then all go to Wendy’s as a group and see who could eat more of these before we got sick. Sometimes it was devastatingly terrible. It was like if you drink a gallon of milk, then you get sick. It was on par with that just with these delicious sugary, chocolatey desserts. It’s forever ingrained in my mind and in my childhood. It’s nice to know that I made myself sick for a good cause. First of all, it’s wonderful to hear that there’s so much support across the franchisees and that the conversation is really alive within the culture. What I’m really curious about especially as a scientist and as a total geek is that you’ve been working on something really incredible over the past several years that’s been able to create a model for real impact in this issue. Can you share a bit about what you’ve been working on? Now that it’s building momentum, I think that people would be even happier to support and get involved.
It all started with around 2001, 2002, we were making general grants across the nation. We were working on great public service announcements and awareness campaigns. We started an annual network television special about the joys of adoption. We were doing a great job of raising awareness. Our mission literally says, “To dramatically increase the adoptions of children out of the foster care system.” We couldn’t quantify if we were living up to our mission. We went underground and we began to look at what is happening. Why were more children entering foster care and being freed for adoption than being adopted out of the foster care system? We asked adoption organizations across the nation, “Why aren’t you getting these kids adopted?” We heard a number of things. First, “We don’t have the human resources or the financial resources to focus on these children. We have to be triaging the abuse cases that come in the door. Once they’re placed in foster care, they’ve been freed for adoption, they’re okay. They’re safe. They’re fine.”
We also heard from the very lips of the adults who were charged with getting them adopted, “Some of these kids just aren’t adoptable.” That made me sit up straighter, it made my staff get a little bit angry. We thought, “Your job is to get them adopted. How can you call them unadoptable?” We looked at all of the existing best practices, were there any evidence-based practices on behalf of this target population of children who are ageing out of care, older youth, children who are in sibling groups, children with mental and physical challenges, children who’ve been in care for so long that they are literally just waiting to get out of care and opposed to any adult helping them. That’s those 20,000 children every year who age out of care. There were no evidence-based best practices that social workers were using.
We began to look at emerging best practices and created this model that we call Child-Focused Recruitment, which really isn’t rocket science quite honestly. It’s good social work. It says that in order to get a child that’s been in care for a while, a child literally aged nine or older, we know from research the day a child turns nine in foster care, their likelihood of being adopted decreases significantly. Children aged nine and older, here’s what you do. You have a smaller case load of children, ten to fifteen maximum because you have to know these children. You have to visit them at a minimum of monthly. You have to know their journey, what’s happened to them. You have to do a deep dive into their case file that is years long. You have to know everybody that surrounds these children.
In that research that you do in getting to know the child, it doesn’t have to be a stranger adoption. Someone who has been associated with this child will in all likelihood want to step forward and adopt. It could be a former foster parent. It could be an extended family member who didn’t even know the child was freed for adoption. It could be a coach that’s been in their lives or something like that. We started with seven pilot sites in seven states in 2004 and tested this model and continued our grant making platform that said, “We’ll give you a grant to hire what we heard you need, an additional human resource. Hire an adoption professional. We’ll give you the resources to do it, but you have to use this model and test it and let’s see if it works.” In fact, it started to work very quickly. We’ve started to see adoptions turn around.
By 2008, we had a footprint in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We also realized as we began to grow the program, we needed to know at an evidence level if it worked. We put the program from 2007 to 2012 through a five-year rigorous, randomized controlled trial evaluation to compare this Child-Focused Recruitment against business as usual in the same jurisdiction. We’ve already talked about Wendy’s. We asked our Wendy’s partners to step in and help us fund this because at that point, we really hadn’t determined how we were going to fund it. We just knew we had to grow it. They stepped in in such a big way and created all of these in-store campaigns to help grow this program. Our commitment to them is, “We’ll send those dollars back to your community to help get children in your community adopted.”
After five years of this rigorous evaluation, what we found out is that a child served by Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, that we call now, is on average about one and a half times more likely to be adopted. This is where we knew we finally had launched a program that would work. For older youth and for children with mental challenges, the likelihood of adoption increases to at least three times or more than three times better than business as usual, 300% better than business as usual. We were seeing the adoptions happen of older children. We now have nearly 260 funded adoption professionals in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and seven provinces in Canada who are working on behalf of thousands and thousands of this target population of children and youth. We finalized nearly 7,000 adoptions. When you drill down and look at the demographics of these children, we know that it works, even though the research tells us that it does.
The average age of a child adopted through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is about twelve. About 70% of these children have at least one identified special need, 60% are part of a sibling group. Here’s the one statistic that drives us. 20% of the children who are adopted through Wendy’s Wonderful Kids already had a failed or a disrupted adoption. We’re so excited that this has also gathered the attention now of some other investors in addition to Wendy’s so that we’re able to take this program to scale over the next few years in all 50 states. We have a footprint but we’re not serving all of the children we should. We’re now going to be able to take this to scale and embed it as best practice in all 50 states.
Congratulations for being able to create such a sizeable impact on something that was unpredictable. What’s predictable is business as usual. It might not be rocket science, but it’s critical that somebody came in and did this kind of work, so thank you. Rita, are there any other misnomers or pitfalls or anything that you’d like to dispel that you think is really important for the listeners to know, to understand about this issue or how to impact it?
We have to make sure that we set aside our misperceptions about who these children are. I think when we talk about particularly older youth in foster care, we think, “They’re too old or too damaged or too dangerous to bring into my house,” when nothing could be farther from the truth. These are children with all of the same hopes and dreams as any other child. They’ve just had an incredibly rough start to life. Set aside this notion that these children are unadoptable. Set aside the notion that they’re too old. You’re never too old for family. Family is important at every stage of our lives no matter how old we are, and that they deserve a family.
We had this one young man who one of the recruiters had been working on behalf. He was really shy. He had been in care for about five years. He actually was supposed to being adopted. Once the recruiter started working with him, she at least brought him around to talking a little bit more, sharing about what was in his life and thinking about adoption. The one person he kept talking about was just this one young man’s name. He kept talking about this young man in his life and she finally said, “Who is this?” He said, “It’s my best friend.” The recruiter, after a few months, went to the best friend’s family and talked about this young man. They said, “First of all, we didn’t even know he was available for adoption. If you’re talking to us because you think we might be interested, we are absolutely interested.”
Long story short, we get to the judge’s courtroom. The match between this young man’s best friend and him has happened, so the family has taken him in and wants to adopt him. They’re in the courtroom where the judge does their job and asks everyone about what’s going on but particularly will ask a child, “What do you think about this adoption?” He was really shy and it took a little bit of prodding from the judge but finally he looked up. His name was Dondrei. Dondrei looked up and he looked at the judge and stood up even straighter and said, “Now, my best friend is also my brother.” That’s the power of this program and that’s the power of family. It’s what we should keep in mind every day when we think some children just don’t deserve to have a family.
Rita, thank you so much. Listeners, please support organizations like the Dave Thomas Foundation. They’re doing really incredible work. If we can not only help people find homes that are safe and secure, the impact to that on everything from where they’ll be twenty years from now to the reduction of people in prisons would just be an incredible effect to this country as a whole. Rita, thank you very much. Listeners, stay tuned. We have another anonymous interview coming up next.
About Rita Soronen
Since 2001, Rita Soronen has led the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national non-profit public charity dedicated to assuring safe and nurturing homes for North America’s children in foster care waiting to be adopted. She has created signature programs that have changed child welfare practice while driving significantly more adoptions of our most vulnerable and forgotten children.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now for my favorite part: the anonymous interview. We have the incredible Mike with us. Mike, thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me.
Let’s give the listeners a few hints on who you are. Let’s start with the basics. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Where did your career take you?
My career has brought me to Los Angeles with a very important summer in these beautiful suburbs of Chicago working in corporate finance before I graduated from college. That experience convinced me I had to be as far removed from reality as possible, which is why I drove across the country and arrived in Los Angeles at the tail-end of 2001.
Clearly this experience in the corporate world pushed you completely away from a standard job. Was there something that really specifically inspired you to go into the career and entertainment that you had? Was there a teacher or a conversation that you had?
The moment that really inspired me to go into entertainment was after that unfulfilling internship in the suburbs of Chicago. I went back from my senior year of college at Indiana University. I saw a guy I wasn’t close with but he was also in the business school. We shared some classes. I asked him, “Josh, what did you do this summer?” He said, “I had an internship in Hollywood.” I said, “What does that even mean?” I think he said his uncle knew someone who ran a product company at Warner Bros. My mind was just blown because I’ve always loved movies and storytelling and entertainment. It’s not like we were the kids growing up making movies in our backyard. When there used to be blockbuster videos or at least in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we went to a video watch. We would go and literally spend hours cruising the isles and trying to decide what video to rent and trying to go with our friends to go in what we called “the little room” which was obviously the porn room. Movies have always, not pornographic movies, but other movies have always held a special place in my heart. When Josh told me that he had this internship, I was like, “I’ve got to know more.” He gave me something called a Hollywood Creative Directory, which was just a book that listed all these production companies and talent agencies. I was clueless. I didn’t even know what credits in movies meant. Those were the people who worked on them. That was the moment. It came at the perfect time. Josh is a very nice guy. I haven’t caught up with him in years. I also thought to myself, “If Josh can do this, then I can do this.”
Is there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
The thing I’m most proud of is worked on a series called Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis. We were very fortunate to do an episode with President Barack Obama. I think the piece turned out very, very well. Most importantly, it actually drove a 40% increase in the enrollment of the Affordable Care Act when it was launching. That was a really powerful moment to see what the power of comedy could do to help inspire young people and old people to sign up for a healthcare law that would help them out.
That’s almost reminiscent of 16 and Pregnant. The MTV was able to show that they actually reduced teen pregnancy as a byproduct of that show, which is incredible. Let’s give the listeners a sense of what you look like. If there was a movie of your life, who would play you?
I will say my good friend, Jeff Goldblum.
Who you might know as the master of the Marvel Universe or something like that?
I haven’t seen that yet but I’ve heard the movie is good and he’s quite good. I’m tall and thin and have dark hair and so does Mr. Goldblum.
Was there a crazy stunt that you pulled to get into the industry? Sometimes people have these stories of how they faked their way on to a set or into the Oscars and then got to meet some famous personality and got their break.
No, I don’t have a crazy stunt story. I have lots of trying-not-getting-anywhere, the classic rejection stuff. I never got dispirited. I always felt like it was just all part of some amazing journey that I was very lucky to be on. I’ve had my breaks certainly. My biggest break was definitely a friend of mine, a writer named Yoni Brenner was staying on my sofa and he knew a gentleman named Peter Benedek who was one of the founders of United Talent Agency. He was a big supporter of the Michigan Film Department. I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan and Yoni went to Michigan. Yoni told me about a party that he was having to support a Michigan film program. Yoni and I weren’t invited but we went anyways and were able to chat with the nice ladies working at the door and told them we were from Ann Arbor and that Yoni knew Peter and this and that. We went and I was able to meet Peter. I spoke to him for just one or two minutes. The next day, I woke up with a job offer to join UTA’s mailroom. That was an important moment. That was on my 25th birthday. Before then, I had had crappy internships. I’ve even been fired from an unpaid internship. I was working at The Standard on Sunset as a food expediter. I was just on the outside looking in. Peter extending that job to me is really when I felt like this is my shot to get into it in a real way.
Was a certain moment that you felt like you had arrived to some degree? I know nobody really ever fully arrive, but that you were accepted into the inner circle or you had achieved some status.
When I got my current job or at least at my current company, I knew that this was an opportunity that could change my life. I really decided to dedicate my whole life to it. That was the moment where I felt like here’s my real shot to make an impact. I was very excited for the challenge and was not going to let it slip by.
Last question. What hint or riddle would you give people to guess who you are?
I am the CEO of a comedy company in which for the last ten years we’ve had all sorts of people make jokes about the name of our company. If we don’t make someone laugh, then we will perish.
Listeners, you have plenty to go. If you can figure out who Mike is, you can win an invitation to me or The Salon by Influencers and get to hang out with extraordinary people like Mike. Good luck.