Indiana partners with program that searches foster kids' pasts to find forever families

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Following a yearslong, small-scale partnership, Indiana child welfare agencies have finalized an agreement with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption to grow a program that works to connect some of the state's most vulnerable foster youth with their forever families.

A program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids connects children in foster care with recruiters — or case workers — tasked with helping them find their forever families. These recruiters work with smaller caseloads, generally around 12 to 15 children at a time, the foundation’s president and CEO, Rita Soronen, said.

These recruiters then do deep dives into the child’s case file and history, looking for missed connections in their past and opportunities to make connections with adults that have already been in the child’s life, such as an overlooked distant relative, coach, teacher or pastor.

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Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is not new to Indiana. In 2007, the program began what The Villages of Indiana President and CEO Shannon Schumacher characterized as an extended pilot, and the state has had four recruiters since then. But the decision to scale the program is new — details were finalized between the foundation, The Villages and the Indiana Department of Child Services in late 2021.

>Soronen said the foundation has found that children in the program are three times more likely to be adopted than if it were business as usual. Indiana, in its small-scale experience with Wendy's Wonderful Kids, had seen over 100 adoptions come out of the program by late last year.

“Our whole mission is to make sure that children are cared for in a family that can keep them safe and healthy and loved and cared for,” Schumacher said, “and so this population of children really is the most vulnerable.”

How it works

In this public-private partnership, The Villages will oversee the administrative side of hiring and managing the recruiters, while DCS will identify and refer children to the program. Wendy’s Wonderful Kids will scale up in Indiana over the next five years, Schumacher said. The goal is to have 15 recruiters by the end of the first year and 30 by the end of the second.

Having smaller caseloads not only gives the recruiters more time to find potential families, but connect with the children. It's important, Soronen said, that the children feel empowered to be a partner in this process, particularly older children who may feel they haven't had any agency since entering the child welfare system.

A new partnership between Indiana DCS, The Villages of Indiana and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption will provide additional resources to help some of the state's most vulnerable foster youth find forever families.
A new partnership between Indiana DCS, The Villages of Indiana and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption will provide additional resources to help some of the state's most vulnerable foster youth find forever families.

“The secret sauce is it’s good social work,” she said, “but the key ingredient is that ability to focus on individual children rather than a caseload of 40 or 50 or 60 children for whom they’re doing other child welfare activities, not just focusing on getting these kids adopted.”

Many of the children referred to the program may be considered by some as difficult to place – youth older than 9, sibling groups, children with special needs.

“Every child deserves a chance at a happy future. Every child deserves love, a family and a safe home," DCS Director Terry Stigdon told IndyStar in a written statement. "Our partnership with the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption has helped make that happen for many children in Indiana, and the expansion of Wendy's Wonderful Kids will help us make a greater positive impact. By working together, we make it possible for every child to find a forever family.”

Soronen told IndyStar the goal of working with this population of children was to intervene and connect them with a family before they age out of the system. (In Indiana, older foster youth have access to voluntary services until they’re in their 20s.)

“We’ve simply got to stop this unacceptable pipeline of children who leave the system without a family,” Soronen said. “Many of them go on and thrive, but we know they’re at a much higher risk of homelessness or being under-educated or being unemployed or falling back into systems – not because they’re bad kids, but because they don’t have that safety net of family.”

Cori Olinger is an adoption supervisor and previously spent about five years as an Indiana recruiter. The program is particularly successful, she said, because of the amount of time spent with each child and the focus on reconnecting them with positive influences from their past.

“We get to come in kind of in a different light than what most professionals do with the kids, we really build a strong relationship, we get to know them well, we can take them out and have lunch with them," Olinger said. "We kind of get to be their person.”

It's rewarding, she said, to help a child find their forever family.

"It's pretty amazing to watch," Olinger said.

You can reach IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at holly.hays@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Adoption in Indiana: State partners to find foster kids forever homes

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