Did you know that 50,516 children were adopted from foster care in 2011? November is National Adoption Month, a time to recognize the efforts of social workers, judges, agency administrators, philanthropists, therapists, guardians ad litem, court appointed special advocates, policymakers, and a multitude of other dedicated individuals whose combined efforts helped achieve forever families for children. For the adoptive parents and their children, it’s a time to celebrate the commitments they have made to each other. But it’s also a time to ask how we can ensure that children who remain in foster care, and for whom returning to their families of origin is not safe or possible, can also join adoptive families someday soon. At the end of 2011, 104,236 children were officially classified as waiting for adoption.1
One approach that increases a child’s chances of adoption is the child-focused recruitment model of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK), which has helped almost 4,000 children achieve legal permanence. Child Trends’ evaluation of WWK, a signature program of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, found that it had the biggest impact on adoption for older youth and those with diagnosed mental health disorders—youth for whom it is frequently especially challenging to find adoptive homes. For children ages 8 to 15, the chances of adoption were between 1.5 and 3 times more likely with WWK than with traditional services. Among children with mental health disorders, those in the WWK program were three times more likely to be adopted than those receiving traditional adoption services.
How does child-focused recruitment work? The program takes a child-focused strategy, featuring dedicated recruiters with smaller caseloads than traditional adoption agencies. The recruiters interact with youth every month to understand their history, experiences, and needs. Getting to know each child as a unique individual helps recruiters figure out what type of family would be best for each child and provides clues about how to find that family. Other important resources include networks of important people in the child’s life, thorough case record reviews, diligent search for adoption resources and developing and carrying out individualized recruitment plans. The recruiter also works to ensure each child is prepared for adoption and frequently stays with the family post-adoption. To date, nearly 4,000 adoptions have been finalized through the work of WWK recruiters.
One reason for the commitment to adoption is that youth who age out of foster care without a permanent family are at great risk for serious problems like poor mental health, drug abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration. Yet, very little is known about how youth fare in young adulthood following adoption or about whether adoption can improve the well-being of youth who would otherwise have aged out of foster care. The effect of adoption has been enigmatic to study; experimental evaluations are impossible, since one cannot randomly assign youth to be adopted or not. This is a critical gap in knowledge, given that efforts aimed at increasing adoptions for youth are based on the premise that adoption improves their life prospects.
To address this gap, Child Trends is embarking on a groundbreaking, post-adoption study, funded by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, to look at how youth who were in the WWK program are faring as adults. Child Trends is identifying youth adopted through WWK who had entered foster care at age 8 or older, and interviewing them at age 19 or 20. Because these youth would have been unlikely to have been adopted in the absence of the WWK intervention, the study will yield information about the effect of adoption on young adult well-being. What we learn will tell us not only how adoptees are faring as young adults, but will also inform the design of post-adoption supports—and possibly the adoption process as well—to maximize the odds that finalized adoptions persevere and that, someday, no child leaves foster care without a forever family. So stay tuned for more, especially in future National Adoption Months!
Read the summary of Child Trends’ 5-year evaluation of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids here.
Read our Indicators report on Adopted Children here.
Read our Indicators report on Foster Care here.
More information about the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption here.
Sharon Vandivere, Senior research scientist
Elizabeth Bringewatt, Senior research analyst
Seth Williams, Graduate student at Bowling Green State University
 This may be an underestimate of the number of children who are in foster care and could be adopted. To be classified as “waiting for adoption,” a child must be in foster care and be between 0 and 17 years old, and either their parents must have lost parental rights or the child’s case goal must be adoption. (See: p. 35 in http://www.ndacan.cornell.edu/datasets/pdfs_user_guides/AFCARS_Foster_Care_Codebook.pdf.) The 10,591 children ages 16 or 17 years old whose parents have lost parental rights and who have a case goal of emancipation are not counted as waiting for adoption (Child Trends analysis of 2011 AFCARS data).