Rita L. Soronen
President & CEO, Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption
The following is an excerpt. To download Reflections on Child Welfare Areas of Practice, Issues, and Service Populations, Volume 2.
“Adolescence is the transitional bridge between childhood and adulthood; it encompasses developmental milestones that are unique to this age group. Healthy development is both a right and a responsibility that must be guaranteed for all adolescents to successfully enter adulthood.”
—Elizabeth M. Alderman, Cora C. Breuner, and the Committee on Adolescence Pediatrics, December 2019
For two decades, the number of children emancipating from foster care has been virtually unchanged (20,172 in FY 2000; 20,445 in FY 2019; see U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019). Hundreds of thousands of youth have exited long-term care, which by design was meant only as a temporary placement, and have transitioned into the reality of life without a permanent family. Inevitably, while in foster care, these youth have navigated multiple moves, inconsistent caregivers and services, and the often-unresolved grief and loss that comes with the trauma of abuse and family separation.
Parents, even under ideal circumstances, can find the teenage years to be fraught with tension. Many families are challenged by adolescent developmental behaviors and can experience family stress and conflict throughout this period. Significantly, compounded through life in foster care, the unique developmental stages of teens—exploring self-identity and asserting independence, testing limits and boundaries, experiencing changes in temperament and mood, and discovering new and creative avenues of expression—are too often the very activities that also create barriers to permanency for older youth.
When typical developmental-based behaviors are layered onto the impact of abuse or neglect and the difficulty of being in substitute care for years, a child can exhibit a variety of elevated age- and trauma-based behaviors, including a lack of impulse control, anger, self-harm, depression, difficulty building relationships, or opposition to any conversations around permanency (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). As a result, foster parents and caseworkers without meaningful training in trauma and brain development may ultimately believe that the youth simply is unable to cope with or coexist in a family and label them unadoptable, restricting them to a childhood in foster care and a future without a family.
Additionally, perceptions within the general public about foster care matter. Deeply held negative connotations about adolescent behavior drive damaging but widespread misperceptions about older youth in care—including questions about why they are in care and the resulting barriers to adoption. For example, one survey of Americans’ attitudes about adoption from foster care revealed that 46% believe children are in foster care because they are “juvenile delinquents,” or that they have caused their placement rather than being victims of abuse or neglect. Additionally, 42% of those surveyed believe that there are children who are “unadoptable,” or are at a minimum uncertain that every child is adoptable. Finally, 46% of adults believe that being age 12 or older negatively impacts adoptability (Dave Thomas Foundation, 2017). Add to these misperceptions unaddressed issues of racial bias, antipathy toward youth who are LGBTQ+, or simple disregard for adolescence as a critical childhood developmental stage and we have set up an entire population of children for aging out of care.
These general perceptions are so deeply embedded that frontline social workers, child welfare practitioners, and federal and state policy-makers have crafted strategies that unintentionally build barriers to permanency for children. Indeed, child welfare leadership long has supported the conflicted notion that we can terminate parental rights and successfully allow children to age out without a permanent family. As a result, legislated funding streams and multiple practice strategies now are woven into states’ well-intentioned but too often unsuccessful efforts to help youth transition from foster care into a self-sufficient adulthood. In supporting these efforts, though, we essentially reject vital and well-documented research that shows that the negative outcomes for children aging out of care without the safety net of a permanent family are profound—from homelessness and educational deficiencies to early parenting, joblessness, and substance abuse (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018).
There are grave human and financial costs of aging out of foster care. Rather than enabling this path, child welfare systems must immediately, at the point of parental termination, work to find youth a family and a home; issues of age, sibling status, or complex, trauma-based behaviors may present challenges but must never negate the need for family. In order to do this, though, appropriate and evidence-based recruitment, matching, and adoption programs need to be available to caseworkers, agencies, counties, and states.
Serving as president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a national nonprofit public charity, since 2001 and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption-Canada since 2004, Rita Soronen works to find adoptive families for the more than 155,000 waiting children in North America’s foster care systems. Under her leadership, the Foundation has significantly increased its grant-making while developing strategic and evidence-based initiatives that act on the urgency of the issue. In 2019, the Foundation dedicated more than $30 million across North America to award-winning service, educational and awareness programs. Committed to the core belief that all children have a basic human right to a family and a home, Ms. Soronen has dedicated her career to advocating for our most vulnerable children and families.