November is National Adoption Month, and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, based in Columbus, announced this week that it's hit a major milestone in Ohio.
The foundation, a national public nonprofit charity, said its Wendy's Wonderful Kids program has hit 1,000 adoptions in Ohio. The program focuses on finding permanent homes for children who have been in foster care the longest and are hardest to place, including teenagers, siblings and children with special needs.
Opening homes and hearts
At home in Euclid, members of the Sweet family looked through photos from the last couple of years.
"The Everglades," father Matt Sweet said, pointing to photos from a trip.
"Oh, I remember that," Lexi Sweet, 16, said. "Anthony tried to push me past an alligator."
Laurene and Matt Sweet already had five biological children when they decided they wanted more.
"As they’ve grown, we felt like we had space and we had room in our hearts so we wanted to look into it," Laurene Sweet said.
The family began preparing to adopt in January 2016, reading and taking classes, and met Lexi and Nick in January 2017. The siblings had spent years in foster care and were paired with a Wendy's Wonderful Kids recruiter to help them find a permanent home.
After weekly visits turned into overnight visits, the kids moved in with the Sweets in May 2017 and were officially adopted in late 2018. Lexi's adoption was in September, while Nick's was in December.
Changes since adoption
For Lexi, now 16 and a high school sophomore, adoption has been life-changing.
"There’s a lot more things to do, there’s a lot more opportunities for me to take," Lexi said, adding that she now participates in marching band, plays and show choir, activities she didn't do while in foster care.
Nick, now 18 and a high school junior, has had new opportunities, too. He became a counselor at Camp Discovery, through the American Academy of Dermatology, and has become an advocate for kids with skin conditions.
Nick and Lexi both said they enjoyed having a bigger family.
"More people I like to hang out with and to do more stuff with," Nick said.
"I’ve always wanted to have more siblings," Lexi said. "I’ve always wanted to have an older sister, so now I have two older sisters. So I personally love it."
They also both described the feeling of having a place to call their own.
"If I do decide to go off somewhere and do something, I know I can always come back and they’ll just be like, 'Oh, so you’re home now,'" Lexi said. "I feel like it’s just a nice place to come back to with like a big family."
Of their time in foster care, she added, "I think it felt more temporary than anything. Like anytime I’d say [I was] going home, I wouldn’t say, 'I’m going home.' I would say, 'Oh, I’m gonna go back to the house,' but now I’m like, 'You can come to my house, we’re gonna go home.'"
How the program works
According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the foundation gives grants to adoption agencies to hire adoption recruiters for the Wendy's Wonderful Kids program and pay their salaries. Those recruiters focus only on finding adoptive families for the children on their caseload and have a smaller caseload than a typical caseworker might.
The foundation reports that almost 90% of the kids in this program are older than eight years old, and more than a third of them have had six or more placements in the foster care system.
Throughout Ohio, there are 56 recruiters doing this work, and there are more than 475 throughout the U.S. and Canada, according to the foundation.
What recruiters do
Laura Merklin is a Wendy's Wonderful Kids recruiter in Cuyahoga Falls who has been doing this work for about five years.
"The kids on our caseload are what’s considered the hardest to place kids," Merklin said, adding that teens, siblings and children with special needs are considered by some to be "unadoptable."
But, she said, the foundation believes "unadoptable is unacceptable." Recruiters start by trying to find a permanent home for the child with someone who is connected to the child.
"Maybe a neighbor or a teacher at school, a coach, a pastor," Merklin said. "Someone who has a really good relationship with that child and knows that child."
That means it's important for a recruiter to have a good rapport with the child, so they can work together to identify people important to them who might take on a parenting role.
Another alternative is a record review, where recruiters search the child's record for someone who may have been considered "inappropriate at the time of the removal" for various reasons, such as a lack of housing.
"Years and years later, once permanent custody was granted, they’re not explored again, and now their circumstances have changed," Merklin said. "So it might be an aunt or an uncle or a cousin that can provide a loving home at this point in time."
Asked why it's so important to find someone who is already in the child's life, Merklin said it makes the relationship more meaningful for the child and the person stepping into a parenting role.
"Our kids have had a lot of loss, and building trust can be very difficult because they’ve had a lot of heartbreak," Merklin said.
Merklin said that sometimes older children aren't willing to be adopted, feeling that they've been on their own already and are ready to be out of the system and do it alone.
"So that is our job, to help them prepare and kind of break down that barrier for them," Merklin said. "I always say, 'I am 34 years old and I call my mother on a daily basis.'"
She described the needs a person has, even after reaching adulthood, when it comes to reaching out to family for help or support.
"You never outgrow the need for family, and so just because someone’s 18 doesn’t mean that they’re prepared to go out in life as an independent person. None of us are," Merklin said.
Merklin added that recruiters continue to work on behalf of the child if the child's foster parents aren't willing to adopt.
"Sometimes we have foster parents that say they’re not willing to adopt but that child can stay with them for as long as they want, and that’s really hard for us to hear and we don’t accept that as a recruiter, and we continue to recruit for that child," Merklin said. "And I compare it to a marriage license. Why does someone get married? Is it for the legal reasons or for that sense of commitment? And that’s what we try to convey to our kids and our families, that that legality is important for so many reasons."
According to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, the Wendy's Wonderful Kids program has saved the state of Ohio $64 million since 2004 by moving kids out of foster care and into permanent adoptive homes.
"The state of Ohio helped lead the way in expanding this evidence-based, child-focused approach to serving children in foster care who are often overlooked," Rita Soronen, President & CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, was quoted as saying in a press release from the foundation. "Together, we will work to find safe, loving and permanent families for the more than 3,000 children still waiting to be adopted from foster care in Ohio."
Merklin said that every child brings something special and unique to the table and deserves to find a permanent family.
"Even though adoption may not be for everyone and you may not know a child who’s been in the foster care system, there’s so many other ways you can help and be involved, from volunteering to giving financially to just helping us raise awareness," Merklin said.