patat/shutterstock

patat/shutterstock

In the resort town of Atlantic City, in the summer of 1932, a young woman gave birth to a baby boy and put him up for adoption. Six weeks later, Rex and Auleva Thomas took him home to Kalamazoo. Auleva died early, when the child was just five, landing him at his grandmother’s for a spell. But it wasn’t long before he went out into the world with his adoptive father, who was traveling from state to state looking for work.

By 10, the boy had lost two more stepmothers, and began shuffling between trailers and boarding houses. Later in life, he’d say the experience made him feel like he never belonged anywhere. At 15, when Rex decided to pull up stakes again, the boy decided to stay put. He quit school, began working in a restaurant full-time, and got a room at the Fort Wayne YMCA. He was officially on his own.

That boy was Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, a fast food franchise that today employs hundreds of thousands of people across 6,700 stores. Despite his enormous success, the down-home star of his brand’s commercials never forgot where he came from, or all the children out there waiting for permanent homes.

Pay Now, or Pay Later

Thomas used his position to raise awareness for the cause, and became a leading champion for the adoption of foster care children. President George H. W. Bush made him the national spokesman on the issue. And when President Clinton signed a 1996 bill granting tax credits to adoptive parents, he recognized Dave for his leadership.

Dave knew firsthand that children enter foster care through no fault of their own, by way of abuse, neglect and abandonment. He also knew that there were families out there who wanted to adopt, but were stopped dead in their tracks by obstacles from red tape to affordability.

In 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA), a Columbus-based nonprofit that, more than 25 years after his death, is still the only public charity in the United States that focuses solely on foster care adoption.

The data supporting that focus is compelling. Pew provides ample evidence that young adults who age out of the foster care system are distinctly disadvantaged. Only 58 percent graduate from high school. One in five ends up homeless after emancipation. And one in four crosses paths with the justice system within two years. Substance abuse, mental health issues and teen pregnancy rates rocket above national averages. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative says that each cohort of young people leaving foster care costs the country an additional $8 billion in welfare, Medicaid, lost wages and incarceration costs. It seems society either pays now, or pays later.

Beyond Annie E. Casey, a number of foundations work on foster care. In New York City, a five-funder collaborative recently emerged to bring new energy and resources to improving foster care. It’s called the Foster Care Excellence Fund, and the funders involved are the New York Community Trust (where the fund is housed), Redlich Horwitz Foundation, Ira W. DeCamp Foundation, Joseph Leroy & Ann C. Warner Fund, and Tiger Foundation. The group is working in partnership with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services to uncover new approaches for finding stable foster homes for local kids.

In Los Angeles, a who’s who of local foundations comprises an ambitious public-private partnership with Los Angeles County to improve the foster care system. In Houston, Andy and Andrea Diamond last year made a $17 million gift to fund a University of Houston effort to better support its students in, or aging out of, the foster care system. With the gift, the couple joins the small but growing number of givers intent on helping foster kids succeed.

Paying it Forward

The foundation Dave Thomas founded pays his success forward in a range of ways. Rita Soronen, a nationally recognized child welfare advocate who’s led the organization for nearly 20 years, says the gaps in foster care weren’t even part of the conversation when it began working in ’92. Then, it had six employees. Today, it has a team of forty.

The funds coming in from all those stores selling frostys and fries add up to something significant. DTFA will dedicate more than $37 million this year to programs and awareness efforts supporting foster care transitions. Forty-five percent of that, $16.8 million, was raised through in-restaurant campaigns and other Wendy’s related events. The balance comes from individual donors, other foundations, Wendy’s corporation and suppliers, the endowment, and a few relatively small government contracts. Ninety percent of funds go directly toward programming.

The foundation’s board reflects its committed core of supporters. Wendy’s executives serve alongside Dave’s family members—including the eponymous Wendy—and outside experts in child welfare. Rita notes that, through all the changes in leadership, the Wendy’s company, franchisees, suppliers, employees and customers have never wavered from their commitment to the foundation’s purpose.

Of its dual missions, Rita says they were doing a great job meeting one of them: raising awareness, through events like National Adoption Day and A Home for the Holidays—an annual primetime holiday special that shares stories of families brought together by foster care adoption. Last year, the event was hosted by LL Cool J and attracted big names in entertainment, from Jennifer Hudson to Josh Groban. After it aired, 30 thousand people contacted DTFA and the Children’s Action Network for more information.

But the problems behind achieving its mission to increase the number of adoptions remained stubborn. Part of that can be attributed to the singular focus of its signature program, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK), which targets the toughest kids to place. That includes kids who’ve been in care the longest, bouncing between up to a dozen homes. A single behavioral blip during all that upheaval can unfairly label them as too damaged or too dangerous. Age is also a determining factor. WWK concentrates on kids above age 9, sibling groups who want to stay together, and children with special needs.

The foundation sought an evidence-based solution to bring to scale. After canvassing hundreds of child welfare agencies to learn what was keeping kids from getting adopted, it identified a gap at the intake level. The system was working for younger children, but financial and human resources were lacking for tougher placements. As a result, DTFA developed a child-focused recruitment model that funds embedded recruiters at adoption agencies. Starting in Ohio, the foundation created a public-private partnership to lower recruiter caseloads, and ensure that the necessary time and resources are there for each child.

The program’s had measurable success. Caseloads have been reduced from 30-60 to 12-15 kids. And children referred to the WWK program are three times more likely to be adopted. As for scale, the foundation’s been ambitious. In 2017, it launched a 12-year business plan to grow WWK in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Today, the program counts 432 recruiters in 48 states, nine of which have been brought to scale. Rita says the organization is working to hard to balance a more aggressive approach with maintaining its warm culture.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 20,000 kids a year age out of the U.S. foster care system. A hundred and fifty thousand await adoption. The numbers say there’s a clear bottom-line case for states to work with DTFA on changing both entrenched systems, and the idea of “who’s responsible.”

But the boy who never felt at home anywhere would think the answer to that question is clear. We all are.  

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