The Dave Thomas Foundation was started in 1992 when George W. Bush asked Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to become the spokesperson for a national adoption awareness campaign. Since then, the foundation has made visible progress in their goal to revolutionize foster care adoption in the United States. Their efforts are comprehensive and include everything from conducting important surveys and releasing research that give us insight into our current perceptions of adoption, to launching hands-on campaigns like Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a program that funds, trains, and embeds expert adoption professionals into the foster care system.
Today, the Dave Thomas Foundation is lead by CEO, Rita Soronen, an outspoken advocate for her company and a force for good in the industry. Soronen shared some of her thoughts with us about the future of adoption in our society.
Foster care discussion with Rita Soronen
Where did your passion for foster care and child welfare come from?
Rita Soronen: Almost 30 years ago, my oldest daughter was just an infant then, there was this horrendous case of child abuse and death that hit the news, and for some reason it was one of those stories that capture you. I felt like there were lots of families in need. I could either sit around, or I could do something.
It drove me to volunteer. I started working in child abuse prevention for the League Against Child Abuse in Columbus. My main concern was, how do we prevent children from ending up in foster care, how do we support families? This volunteer position turned into a professional position. I then moved onto the CASA program, a national group that trains community volunteers as courtroom advocates for children.
Then, I took the position as CEO at Dave Thomas Foundation. We help children who have gone through foster care, have gone through the court system, and who are permanently separated from their birth parents. It’s our job to help them find a family as quick as possible.
It’s been a full circle journey for me, but I started out striving to ensure that children are safe.
What are the most exciting things going on right now in the adoption community?
Rita Soronen: It’s starting to change.
We do a survey every two years and ask Americans about their feelings toward foster care adoption. If you’d have asked the same question 15 years ago, they would have assumed it was all negative. This time we asked: do you believe every child is adoptable, and 50% said yes.
We’re overcoming myths that these kids are too old or damaged, or that their parents will come back to claim them. It’s starting to peel away. Everything we do is countered by negative stories in the press, but we’re working at all levels, and seeing change. There’s a small glimmer of hope that a growing number of policy makers are interested in these issues.
Is social media hurting or helping the adoption and foster care process?
Rita Soronen: Good question. We’re ensconced in social media, getting out positive messaging about foster care adoption. It will help. Former foster youth and families that have adopted have a voice now. People who have been impacted by this issue have an equal opportunity that media has to speak out about it. There is potential for a profound positive change through social media.
Where do you see Dave Thomas Foundation in five years?
Rita Soronen: We have done a lot. The first decade was focused on raising awareness of children in foster care waiting to be adopted. Then we added solid programs, grants for the families, we elevated the conversation on best practices in foster care at the policy level across the nation.
We’re starting a practice that can help older children, the ones everyone else has given up on. We’re changing the trends for older youth. They don’t have to become statistics, they can find the family they deserve. We’ve become missionaries to find homes for these children. We must not give up on them. They are not ‘unadoptable.’
Did you meet Dave Thomas?
Rita Soronen: Growing up in Columbus for most of my life—age 10 and onward—I felt like I knew him because he’s a local hero. I went to a large high school and his oldest daughter was in my class. It was serendipitous. I had a couple visits with Dave Thomas in 2001, when he was very ill, but not as many as I’d liked. I wish I’d had more time. Still, I was pleased that I was able to do that.
Are there things you would change about the foster care system?
Rita Soronen: Absolutely. Lots of things.
People shouldn’t be allowed to utter the word unadoptable. There are youth in detention centers and institutions getting adopted. Find us the worst-case scenario and we will find a family for that child.
Also, the best practices are not yet thoroughly embedded in foster care. We need adoption competent practitioners in the system. You’d be surprised how many don’t have the skills. Professionals need to be trained in the issues.
Doing away with long-term foster care. In 2012, there were 23,429 children aging out of foster care. That is unacceptable. Whether these kids are 3 years old, or 18 years old, they need a family.
If I were considering adopting from foster care or becoming a foster parent, where should I go for more information?
Rita Soronen: If you want information, go to our website. There’s a beginner’s guide that shows you the steps for foster care and adoption. There’s a list of agencies we work with, because most foster parents don’t want to begin with an agency they don’t know. We can connect you to them. There are lots of free resources available. We stand ready to help anyone thinking about foster care.