COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the last day of November, which was National Adoption Month, Ohio Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted announced that Ohio is the first state to implement two new technology tools to help children in foster care connect with their forever families.
Children services professionals now have access to the Family Connections tool and the People Search tool through Connect Our Kids.
Family Connections is a “genogram,” or a virtual diagram, that illustrates a child’s family members. Through a desktop or mobile app, professionals can build family trees and find family contact information for children currently in foster care.
People Search draws on public information from more than 300 sources, covering more than three billion people, to expand the pool of potential kinship caregivers for a child in foster care beyond just people who are in current contact with the child’s parents.
“As of today, there are 3,175 children awaiting adoption in Ohio, and we owe it to them to work as hard as we can to get each and every one of them a permanent and loving family,” Husted said at a press conference at the Ohio Statehouse Tuesday morning.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services partnered in this effort with InnovateOhio, Kinnect, Ohio CASA and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Why is it so hard for older kids to get adopted?
Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is a program through the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption that started in 2004 and uses “recruiters” to help older kids in the foster care system find forever homes. In February 2021, the Dave Thomas Foundation announced that Wendy’s Wonderful Kids had moved 10,000 children out of foster care and into permanent homes across the U.S. and Canada. That includes more than 1,300 Ohio children.
The program provides grants to other organizations to hire the recruiters, according to Angela McAlarney, a Wendy’s Wonderful Recruiter with the agency Caring for Kids. She highlighted the importance of placing older children in permanent homes.
“Children who emancipate out of foster care, they have very limited assistance,” McAlarney said. “There is the Bridges program, which is awesome. It helps until they’re 21, but if they’re not able to meet the criteria, then they lose that program, which that means they lose their funding. So if they have difficulty getting to work, then they’re not working enough hours, they lose their help.”
McAlarney said that’s where having a family can be really crucial.
“If something happens, you can go back to your family and say, ‘Hey, I was sick and I missed too many days of work and I got fired and now I can’t pay my rent,’ and your family can say, ‘OK, well, we’re going to help you through this,’” McAlarney said.
She added that recruiters see older children who don’t get adopted end up in unstable situations, often “couch surfing” because they don’t have a consistent place to stay.
Asked why people seeking to adopt do not often seek out older children, McAlarney said she believed it was due to misconceptions about their behavior.
“These kids have been through a lot, so they may not trust really easily because the adults in their lives have not, you know, they’ve not followed through. They’ve not kept them safe or kept their word,” McAlarney said. “When they come into a new home, they may be kind of standoffish, and ‘I’m not going to talk to these people because, you know, I’m going to hide in my room,’ and then they’re seen as antisocial, but they’re hiding in the room because maybe they’re just not comfortable.”
She added that some older children may have had aggression issues in the past, “but then you find out, well, in the past, when somebody put their hair back in a ponytail, that meant they were going to hit them. So there was some trigger there, maybe, that they felt unsafe and they needed to protect themselves.”
The Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, then, allows recruiters to meet children and learn what they’ve been through. While supporting the child, recruiters work to find a family that is a good fit. The program emphasizes “foster to adopt,” meaning the foster family eventually adopts the child or finds an adult in the child’s life with whom they may have a bond already.
A forever family, brought together through foster care
Carla and Oliver Green had always considered fostering children, but Carla said they didn’t always know for sure if they wanted to do it. However, about five years ago, she and her husband decided to take the classes to become foster parents.
“Once we completed the classes and once we received our first placement, we knew that we made the right decision,” Green said.
Their first placement: brothers Taye and KeMarquez from Cleveland, whom they did not know beforehand.
“We were both unsure of what to expect,” Green said.
At Tuesday’s press conference at the Statehouse, Green described how her now-sons came to be in foster care.
“My sons were found in a hotel room with no food and no diapers for the youngest child. Their biological family had moved to Las Vegas, and they had been left in the care of a family member who was, in honesty, too young to have assumed that responsibility,” Green said.
Taye and KeMarquez have a younger brother, Kiondre, who was placed in a separate foster home.
“All of us were split except for me and [KeMarquez],” Taye Green, now 16, said. “We’ve just been together since we kept moving.”
He described the foster care experience as “stressful.”
“We had to get used to [foster families] when we moved to other places, other homes,” Taye said.
McAlarney, the recruiter, said the program tries to keep siblings together when that is possible.
“Unfortunately, when children are brought into foster care, there’s not a lot of time and there’s also a shortage of foster homes,” McAlarney said. “So if you have a home who only is licensed for so many children and you have a sibling group, well, if the only foster homes available can take two of the kids and one can take another, then that ends up being a situation.”
While that can be difficult, McAlarney said part of her job is to assist with sibling visits for siblings placed separately, as well as trying to reunite the siblings, especially for an eventual adoption.
Green said she and her husband initially thought the placement would be temporary at their Westerville home. However, “months kept rolling, and it was looking more like it was becoming more permanent.” Eventually, Kiondre joined them in foster care at the Green’s house.
Eventually, the boys went into permanent custody, which meant the parental rights of their biological parents were severed, according to McAlarney, who got involved at that time.
McAlarney’s role was to help the family through the transition of fostering to adopt, and as Green described, “to make sure that they were understanding what was happening, to make sure that they were comfortable with what was happening.”
During that transition, McAlarney stayed in contact with the family to provide support or resources and visit them once a month. All of this is to make the adoption process as successful as possible, helping the families feel prepared and the kids feel ready.
“That word adoption can be difficult for some kids,” McAlarney said. “It’s a little scary sometimes because their biological family was supposed to be permanent and it wasn’t. So now it’s like, ‘OK, so we need to prepare this and this whole process, prepare them for the process and help them understand that it is a different situation and they’re here for you.’ And it’s that adoption day is the day that most of them are like, ‘OK, I got this.’”
“Angela [McAlarney] was really good at communicating with the boys, as well as identifying some of the behaviors and some of the root causes to the behaviors,” Green said. “She was also very good at coming back and explaining what she had observed through her communication and interaction with the children. And one of the things that was striking, that was just amazing that she identified was they had a sense of loyalty to their previous family and it’s something that, you know, I think we all do.”
McAlarney explained that one of the boys experienced what’s called “divided loyalty.”
“He felt like he would be disloyal to his biological family by loving a new family. But he felt safe and comfortable there [at the Green’s house]. So he’s got like these mixed emotions,” McAlarney said.
The recruiter said she worked through that with him, telling him that “it’s perfectly OK to love your biological family and you deserve a family who will keep you safe and where you feel loved. So it’s OK to love this family, too.”
The Greens officially adopted Taye, KeMarquez (now 12) and Kiondre (now 8) on October 5, 2020, after fostering them for several years.
Green said, “Through this transition, they weren’t for sure how to love others, and they weren’t for sure how to allow others to love them. And it was just this divide of loyalty that they had for their other family and they didn’t know how to balance loving us and others, as well as their family.”
Taye Green said he and his brothers felt safer once they got comfortable with the Greens and got to know them.
“It took like longer for me than it was for the other two, cause it was kind of hard for me to trust people,” KeMarquez Green said.
Trust is a key component of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption Model, according to McAlarney. That’s one of the benefits of fostering to adopt, or of finding a trusted adult with whom a child has already bonded.
“If the children can’t trust them, it’s harder for them to open up, and not only that, if it’s somebody who already knows them, they understand what they’ve been through,” McAlarney said. “And so they’re going to be more patient and willing to work with them because [of] the bond the adult has with the child.”
Green said the best part about adopting her sons was that she got to know the boys prior to adopting them, which she considers a benefit for people, rather than adopting a child they’ve never met before. For them, that meant “no surprises,” and the family was able to work out “most of the kinks” prior to adoption.
“It gave us the privilege to get to know the boys, to get familiar with the boys,” Green said.
Green said they were very excited for the future and their new opportunities as a family.
“I am excited as a parent to see the outcome of the boys and to keep them motivated and on a positive track,” Green said.
Asked what she would say to someone considering to foster to adopt, Green noted that it’s “rewarding.”
“There are so many kids that are in need of a good home,” Green said. “There are so many children that need a ray of hope, that second chance. I would say if you’re thinking about it, absolutely, go for it and at least inquire about it.”
For people looking into being licensed to adopt, McAlarney suggested doing research by looking at what agencies are nearby, talking to their counties and seeing what supports each organization provides and what needs their needs the most.
She encouraged those looking strictly to adopt older children to look into the support of Wendy’s Wonderful Kids and fostering to adopt.
“It’s just an honor to be part of a program that helps children in this way,” McAlarney said.
It’s a source of joy for her, too.
“I’m just so happy for the children and the family, too,” McAlarney said. “All I can think about is like trying not to cry during finalization because, you know, all of those emotions. We connect with these children, we help them through the hard times, we help them through the emotions, the adjustment, we help the family, like I said, understand all of that. So there’s a lot, a lot of time spent with the kids. You get to know the kids and the family. And so in the end, you are just, it’s just so much joy to be able to be part of that.”