November 18, 2021
Q&A with Rita Soronen – National Adoption Month
For more than 30 years, Rita Soronen, president, and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, has provided leadership for local, state, and national efforts working to improve the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, while striving to assure safe and permanent homes for North America’s children. Soronen, who currently serves on the National CASA/GAL Association for Children Board of Trustees, sat down with National CASA/GAL during National Adoption Month to talk about kinship care adoption and the importance of nurturing family connections for children in foster care.
National CASA/GAL: Tell us about the Dave Thomas Foundation and what you are seeking to do there.
Rita Soronen: We’re a national nonprofit public charity, with a singular mission to dramatically increase the adoptions of children across North America who have been freed for adoption and are waiting for permanent families. We raise awareness, provide educational resources, and elevate the conversation, so we can normalize this notion that there are children in each of our backyards who are waiting to be adopted. We are also a grant making organization that provides resources to organizations and ascribes to the notion that we also need to support families who step forward to adopt, for example, through our Adoption-Friendly Workplaces campaign.
We also have a signature program we launched in 2004 that focuses on how we address the 20,000 children who age out of foster care each year. What are the gaps that exist where can we step in and collaborate and partner with organizations? We started Wendy’s Wonderful Kids in 2004 as a pilot project based on child-focused recruitment model, that provides grants to organizations to hire full-time adoption professionals to work with children and youth who have been waiting the longest to be adopted. It is an evidence-based model that moves children to adoptive homes and has grown to have a significant footprint in all 50 states, D.C. and Canada. It feels much like a CASA model in a way, but it’s for the children whose parental rights have been terminated or are on the path toward termination and are waiting to be adopted. They’re the most at-risk group of children – older children, sibling groups, children with special needs and youth who resist efforts at permanency.
National CASA/GAL: What is your background?
Rita Soronen: When I made this shift over to child abuse prevention, I was working on a master’s in landscape architecture. We had just moved back to Columbus and there was a horrible case of child abuse and the child passed away. And that’s when suddenly, as a new mother, I was just primed for how do we make this different for children? I started out as a volunteer at a child abuse prevention agency and then I just moved through that system. So, no, I did not start out as a social worker, train as an attorney, nor have I been adopted, or adopted my children. But I am driven, as a child advocate, by working for the rights of children.
National CASA/GAL: What drives your motivation to serve children and youth who are in foster care or who are seeking forever homes through adoption?
Rita Soronen: I started out in child abuse prevention, then I ran the CASA organization here in Columbus, Ohio. More than 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to move into this position at the Dave Thomas Foundation. Personally, it’s been this full circle movement from prevention to intervention to what happens when both of those systems essentially fail on behalf of children, and they become legal orphans.
Families makeup communities. And if we have individual children or adults who were simply denied that access to a permanent family or for whatever reason, were not able to grow and thrive in a permanent family, then we don’t have the fulfillment of what an active vibrant community should be. It is the birthright of every child to have a safe, loving, and permanent family, and ideally that’s with their family of origin. But when that’s not possible, then our responsibility, as adults in this child welfare system, is to assure that they have a permanent family. For more than 30 years, it has been my honor and blessing to serve, but it goes beyond that, it’s about advocating for children, families and thriving communities.
National CASA/GAL: What role do you see CASA and GAL volunteers playing in supporting children and families during this transition?
Rita Soronen: First, as the independent advocate’s voice for what’s best for this child – whether that’s to advocate for termination of parental rights, advocate for return to the family, and/or advocate for a continuum of services that perhaps only the CASA volunteer sees. Because they know these children so well and their circumstances, as well as the journey they have experienced in the child welfare system, CASA and GAL volunteers are critical to the effectiveness of the system.
CASA volunteers truly are such a key part of this activity that works for permanency and all its forms for children who are in the system through no fault of their own. I think particularly in helping courts understand what it means if they hear a child say “no, no, I don’t want to be adopted, no I don’t want to go home.” The CASA volunteer uniquely understands the child and helps the system understand what may be behind that “no” — a fear of being rejected or abused, changing their name, or having to move again. The grief, loss and trauma they have already experienced are profound; CASA volunteers understand this and the impact on a child’s behaviors or resistance to permanency.
CASA volunteers can help other players in the system from social workers to judges, understand the child and their unique needs. Quite simply, a CASA volunteer is just uniquely positioned to understand, to advocate and to follow through on what is best for a child – to be that gnat that’s buzzing around everyone’s head, in the most productive way.
National CASA/GAL: How have you seen kinship adoption or other family supports impact children seeking a permanent home?
Rita Soronen: We all want to be where we identify and children are no different, no matter what their age, but particularly older children. So, if there are family members available – one with whom this child can be placed with in foster care, as an adoptive placement or simply as an extended contact, absolutely, we must do that. Our first goal is to move these children back home if they’ve been placed in foster care. But critical to that is becoming an advocate as well. Even kin families need extra support for these children, that perhaps they had not anticipated in their lives. We simply have to work much harder to keep family involved in these children’s lives.
What are the common characteristics of children in the foster care system who have the most challenges being adopted into a forever home?
Rita Soronen: Some of the common characteristics of children who have the most challenges in finding permanency are age, sibling status, and special needs. With age, we know that by the time a child turns nine in foster care and the parental rights have been terminated, their likelihood of being adopted is reduced significantly. Misperceptions continue to exist that this child is already fully formed, couldn’t possibly fit into a new family, or doesn’t want to be a part of a new family.
The other characteristic is children who are in sibling status – so many families who want to adopt are not looking necessarily for a sibling group of two or three, where two of whom may be teenagers. So, sibling groups become one of those high-risk child groups of aging out of foster care. If their parents’ rights haven’t been terminated, then our first job is to get them home to their family of origin; if they are freed for adoption, then we must find ways to have them stay together.
Finally, children with special needs (behavioral, physical, or health-related) can be challenging. Most of our children in foster care have at least one identified special need by virtue of the reason they came into care. We need to understand the myths and misperceptions that surround these children. We know from research at the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, that nearly the majority of Americans believe children are in foster care because they’ve done something wrong — nothing could be further from the truth, but those misperceptions permeate about our older youth in foster care, particularly teenage boys, and children of color. Our job is to dispel those myths and misperceptions, but also remind people that it is the birthright of every child to grow and thrive in a family.
National CASA/GAL: What advice or direction do you have for families who may be interested in adopting children that are harder to place?
Rita Soronen: First, really look internally and ask yourself these questions: What is it that your family can accommodate? Who is it that your family would like to bring into your circle? After the self-introspection happens, then getting as much information as possible. Make the first call to an adoption organization to understand the requirements – What is a home study? How long does this process typically take? What do I need to do so that I can accommodate all the rules and regulations that need to happen to ensure the safety of this child? And then get connected to as many other adoptive families as possible and begin to ask your own network for support. There is nothing more important than a supportive network. Go into it with eyes wide open. Don’t strive for perfection; rather strive for what is appropriate for your family and if this family will be good for this child. If this isn’t the right time for your family, there are other things that you can do which include advocating for children in the child welfare system, volunteering as a CASA volunteer or guardian ad litem, or mentoring a child. Also, consider during back-to-school or the holidays supporting a gift or backpack drive. Finally, you can advocate for adoption or foster care benefits in the workplace – there are lots of ways to jump into this to help children in our community.
National CASA/GAL: What are the biggest issues facing the child welfare system, and what opportunities do you see to make progress toward addressing them?
Rita Soronen: So, if the last 18 months have pointed anything out to us, it’s that there are inequities in this country. And certainly, the child welfare system has a large over representation of black children and children of color. We must address the issues of racial equity and social justice in the child welfare system, while focusing on prevention efforts and that’s starting to be addressed. The other issue is workforce issues. We must have highly qualified staff that can address the very complex issues of children. And to do that, we need to pay workers well and support them. That’s going to take a commitment of resources in child welfare agencies to make sure that we have the best possible professionals working on behalf of children and families that can understand their complex needs and address them quickly and effectively.
And we need to address this issue of children aging out of the foster care system –whether it’s working toward reunification of children or driving toward permanency and finding adoptive families. And, in the meantime, if children are aging out of foster care, then we must have the best possible services for those children to keep them connected to communities, families, resources, education – to all those things that will support the best well-being outcomes for children.
National CASA/GAL: How can communities better support foster families?
Rita Soronen: First, recognize that they exist, support, and celebrate their existence. Rather than thinking of this as a negative, think of it as a positive. Communities can step forward for celebrations through awareness activities, support, and workplace benefits. There are so many ways for communities to understand that the well-being of our community rests on the well-being of families and the well-being of families rests on the well-being of children in those families. It’s really that simple. Our founder, Dave Thomas, said it best when he noted, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.”
During National Adoption Month, it’s critical to recognize, celebrate and support CASA/GAL volunteers and child welfare programs in our community. We encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect and celebrate the incredible work of CASA/GAL volunteers and CASA/GAL programs, not just during National Adoption Month but every day, making sure that this continues to be a vibrant and critical aspect of what happens in the child welfare system, and on behalf of our most vulnerable children and families.