Individualized Services, Lower Caseloads & Higher Adoption Rates: The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Program Evaluation Report

The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA) and its Wendy’s Wonderful Kids initiative strive to increase adoptions of foster children in the United States and some provinces in Canada. A recent evaluation of the program found that it is more successful in attaining the goal of adoption than traditional casework and adoption models.

The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids (WWK) program, funded partially from donations from Wendy’s restaurants, administers grants through DTFA to adoption agencies across the country who then work with local professionals to place children in the foster care system with adoptive families. The process is highly individualized, with much attention paid to getting to know the children and placing them with recruited, well-vetted families according to the history, strengths and unique needs of the youth. In this model, WWK staff carry a caseload of 12 to 15 children.

The evaluation found that overall; the youth in the WWK program were more likely to be adopted (1.5 times more) than youth outside the program and those who had mental health diagnoses were three times more likely to be adopted than their counterparts in the control group. Also, as the age of the child increased, so did the likelihood that they would be adopted compared to youth receiving traditional services; for example, the report states that youth entering the program at age 11 were twice as likely to be adopted and those referred at age 15 were three times as likely to be adopted. Taking this data at face value it appears the model used by the WWK works exceptionally well with youth sometimes considered more challenging to place in adoptive families (those with special needs, teenagers, etc.).

Demographics of the intervention group, a more detailed breakdown of the findings and information on the WWK program model are available in the Evaluation Report Summary and other evaluation materials at the Child Trends website. A fact sheet of the findings is also available.

Citation of Evaluation Report: Malm, K., Vandivere, S., Allen, T., DeVooght, K., Ellis, R., McKlindon, A., Smollar, J., Williams, E. and Zinn, A. (2011). Evaluation Report Summary: The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids Initiative, Child Trends, Washington, D.C.

The Unknowns Surrounding Foster Children with Incarcerated Parents

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Child Welfare: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties Between Foster Care Children and Their Incarcerated Parents, examined the number of youth in foster care with incarcerated parents, how the child welfare and correctional systems worked together to continue family contact, and how larger government agencies, the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in particular, have supported local level agencies in this goal.

To summarize, the answers are:

  • No one really knows;
  • occasionally; and
  • not much.

Unfortunately, data from the HHS and the Bureau of Justice Statistics do not provide an accurate estimate of the number foster children with at least one parent incarcerated, nor do they provide information on the timing of the incarceration in relation to the removal of the child or children from the home. Known data from 2009 suggest that more than 14,000 youth were placed in foster care due to the incarceration of a parent.

In the 10 states studied, researchers successfully identified methods used to support families separated by both incarceration and the child welfare system including training for caseworkers, and when possible, parental involvement via telephone in child family court hearings. How often such or similar methods were utilized is unknown. It is also not clear if any long-term strategies were in place across systems to best facilitate goals of family reunification, or if and when kinship care was utilized. It should be noted that caseworkers in the child welfare system face extraordinary challenges working with correctional facilities due to the maze of regulations, policies and procedures found in both systems.

The GAO found that HHS does disseminate information to child welfare and correctional agencies to assist children and families involved in both systems, but the report mentions that such information was not necessarily easily located or timely. Also, the report indicates that federal prisons lack written guidelines for working with child welfare agencies and caseworkers.

The report concludes that routine, standardized distribution of up-to-date information, cross-system collaboration, clear protocols adhering to policy and working relationships between agencies at the local level would go far in maintaining familial bonds between foster children and their incarcerated parents. These, and several additional recommendations, are listed at the GAO website.

Even over a decade after its passage, the well-intentioned legislation to more quickly move foster children to permanent homes, via either family reunification or an adoptive home, makes the relevance of this report clear. While federal law deems states must make “reasonable efforts” to reunify families, states are allowed to define those efforts as they see fit. Luckily, legal advocates and some policymakers have long recognized and been working to address the issues raised by this report.

Holiday Advice for Families with Adopted Children

The New York Times blog Well, features a December 31, 2010 post entitled Four Adopted Siblings, Lots of Holiday Stress wherein Dr. Joshua Sparrow offers advice to families with adopted or foster children on how to handle the excitement and stress of the holiday season. His view on the role of prior trauma in shaping responses to a season that is assumed to be one of only happy experiences for children is especially helpful for parents and professionals alike.