Although we say his name dozens of times every day, there is an entire population young adults who may have never heard of Dave Thomas. Not only was he the founder of Wendy’s, the iconic international hamburger chain, he also created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. Adopted as a child, Dave Thomas understood the dynamics of melded families, and was keenly sensitive to the challenges embedded in America’s foster care system and, notably, the children who must navigate government structures – frequently on their own. He emerged as a national adoption advocate in 1990, when President George Bush asked him to become a spokesperson for a new adoption initiative. Dave Thomas urged businesses to provide adoption benefits to employees, testified before Congress in support of adoption tax credits, appeared in public service announcements, led the effort to create the U.S. Postal Service’s Adoption Stamp, and in 1992 created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Clearly ahead of his time, he also put in place a unique nonprofit-corporate partnership that thrives today and focuses exclusively on dramatically increasing the adoptions of children from foster care. Cause marketing was not uniformly accepted as good for business 20 years ago; today it is a rare corporation that does not align with efforts impacting social change – from eradicating cancer to supporting families of critically ill children, from building homes for the displaced to assuring clean water for citizens of African nations. Research now shows that doing good is good for business, but in focusing on foster care adoption, Dave Thomas simply wanted to give back.
As a result, Wendy’s franchisees, their employees and their customers, The Wendy’s Company corporate staff, and suppliers associated with the business all work to generate significant funds for the national nonprofit public charity with the same commitment that resonated in Dave Thomas’ quote, “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility.” The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption is equally committed to measurable results from the programs that have grown under this partnership, most notably, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, a signature program of the Foundation.
Consider the child welfare landscape today. According to the most recent national estimates, last year nearly three million investigations of child maltreatment occurred in this country. As a result of those investigations, more than 700,000 cases of child abuse or neglect were substantiated by the professionals charged with assuring the safety and care of these very special children. Ultimately, after procedures defined by statute and jurisdictional protocol, last year alone, more than 255,000 children were placed in foster or temporary care to assure their safety and to assist the family. Sadly, for 107,000 individual children, more than 50 percent of whom are age 8 or older, the egregiousness of their abuse, neglect or abandonment demanded not only intensive court involvement and the resulting maze of systems and professionals, but also the permanent separation from their parents and home.
The balance of children entering the system remains uneven and the length of time in care is frequently too long. Last year, for example, 64,000 children in foster care were permanently removed from their families of birth, yet only 53,000 children were adopted. These same children waited in foster care an average of four-and-a-half years to be adopted and many wait even longer. A wait of four years, a lifetime to a child, is often further complicated by multiple placements in different homes, schools and neighborhoods and frequent separation from siblings. Childhood moves very quickly in four years.
Understanding the urgency of this dynamic, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption designed and implemented Wendy’s Wonderful Kids in 2004 to increase adoptions from foster care, concentrating especially on children most likely linger in or age out of care – older youth, children with siblings who are also available for adoption, and children who are physically or emotionally challenged. With the fundraising partnership of Wendy’s, the program has grown from seven pilot sites to now 127 individually grant-funded positions in public and private agencies in all 50 states, D.C. and four provinces in Canada.
To date we have served more 7,700 children and have finalized the adoptions of nearly 3,000, with 543 more children in their pre-adoptive placements, simply waiting for the final court hearing. Significantly, of these children, 68% are age nine or older, 48% have at least one identified disability, 30% have had six or more placements at the time of referral, and 21% have had a failed or disrupted adoption prior to Wendy’s Wonderful Kids. Numbers alone, though, are insufficient to fully explain the success of the program.
Rigorous evaluation of adoption recruitment programs should be standard practice given the importance of the outcomes, yet until now, none has been evaluated using methods that yield rigorous evidence that they work differently than the status quo. In order to understand the effectiveness of the child-focused model, the Foundation commissioned Child Trends to conduct an unprecedented five-year research effort that presents the most rigorous empirical evaluation of foster care adoption recruitment practices completed to date. The results from a randomized control trial involving more than 20 of the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids sites show that children in the experimental group were substantially and significantly more likely to be adopted, with the greatest impact on older children and children with disabilities.
The partnership of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, Wendy’s and its customers and adoption agencies across the nation is making a measurable and substantial difference for children waiting to be adopted. Twenty years after starting the Foundation and 10 years after his passing, Dave Thomas has two equally important legacies – the business he created and the lives he changed through the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.