Most people will remember Dave Thomas as the beloved founder of Wendy’s restaurants, home of the old-fashioned hamburger. But there are thousands of people in the United States and Canada who will forever have a much deeper and personal connection with the now-deceased pitchman.
Mr. Thomas was adopted when he was six weeks old. Like many who were given up by one or both of their biological parents, it left an indelible mark on him. After hamburgers made him rich, the affable restaurateur started the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which has chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Much of the work that the foundation does now focuses on trying to find homes for the hardest to house, often teens who have bounced around foster care, frequently burdened with heavy psychological and emotional baggage. In Canada, these are kids for whom child-welfare authorities have mostly given up finding permanent families.
Not that long ago, if you were in foster care in B.C. and hadn’t been adopted out by the age of 6, you were considered a lost cause. That age threshold was later bumped up to 12. Overloaded social workers don’t have the time or resources necessary to find a fit for a child who isn’t wrapped in swaddling clothes but instead might come with tattoos and an attitude.
Over the years, the Ministry of Children and Family Development has spent more time working with these kids on how to live independently, invariably on welfare. The majority “age out of the system,” which means that when they turn 19 they are effectively on their own.
Under the program introduced by the Thomas foundation in 2004, recruiters spend weeks investigating a particular foster child’s history and broad family connections as part of their work in finding that needle in the haystack that is the one person or family who wants this individual. Needless to say, this personal, child-focused approach is an intense and time-consuming method of adoption matching. But it works.
Children served by this recruitment-style method are almost twice as likely to find a permanent family to join than those who are not. For kids 15 and older, the program is three times as likely to find that home than those not able to take advantage of it. Since 2004, the foundation has placed more than 2,500 kids once considered unadoptable in permanent situations. That may not seem like a huge number, but that is 2,500 people who have a far better chance of leading productive lives as opposed to ending up in jail or on welfare.
Karen Madeiros, executive director of the Adoptive Families Association of B.C., believes the child-focused model the Thomas foundation has introduced needs more exposure in Canada.
Adoptive Families was the first organization in the country to test-pilot the program. It now has two full-time recruiters sponsored through the foundation’s Canadian arm to find homes for teenaged foster kids.
Since 2006, the two case workers have placed 55 children in finalized adoptions, several of whom were over 12.
Over all, this area of adoption remains a struggle in B.C, Ms. Madeiros says. Progress is marginal. There are more the 400 kids over the age of 12 waiting to be adopted as we speak. The current foster care system in B.C. is not great. Many kids end up living on the street. More resources need to be put into finding permanent homes for them as quickly as possible.
“It’s incredibly labour-intensive,” Ms. Madeiros says. “It costs a lot of money to keep kids off the streets. But it costs a lot of money to keep them on welfare or in jails, and that’s where a lot of them are going to end up.”
Ms. Madeiros believes the B.C. government needs to look at introducing child-specific adoption on a broad scale. It will mean a wholesale shift in thinking by those responsible for children in care in the province, she says.
“We have all these people working in the system now who are building Band-Aids,” Ms. Madeiros says. “What we’re talking about is building an antidote. We’ve got to get way up front with this antidote and put energy into prevention.
“It’s not sexy. It’s not putting anyone’s name on a building. We’re talking about helping one individual. But the difference it can make is huge.”