Every Child Deserves A Home

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Deanna is the kind of girl anyone would be proud to call daughter. She's 14 years old and has red hair and a bright smile. She's in the ninth grade and hopes to be on the swim team at her school in Kansas City, Kan. On the surface, she's like thousands of other American children full of energy and promise.

Yet when I met Deanna at a White House reception in November 1995, I noticed something in her eyes-a quiet sadness and a distance-that I've seen far too often. You see, Deanna has spent most of her life in foster care. Abuse at the hands of her birth parents forced the courts to end her parents' rights, and she became available for adoption at age 5. What I saw in Deanna's expression was the worry and confusion of an entire childhood spent moving from one foster home to the next.

Please understand: I'm not being critical of foster care. Foster parents are terrific people who work hard every day to provide safety and security for thousands of boys and girls just like Deanna. These children come in all ages, from all types of backgrounds, and they all need to feel connected. But foster care is designed to be a temporary solution for a child's home life. It should not become an entire childhood for anyone.

I know firsthand the difference having your own family can make. Like many kids waiting for homes, my unwed mother put me up for adoption. Life with my new parents was not easy. My adoptive mother died when I was 5, and my adoptive father and I moved from town to town while he searched for work. Yet without a permanent family of my own, I know I would not be where I am today.

There are about 440,000 children in the foster-care system on any given day in the U.S. Of these, 100,000 will be or already are available for adoption. Few are orphans. In fact, most still have at least one birth parent. Yet maybe the mother is unable to cope with two or three kids or has a tough addiction problem. Maybe the parents neglect the children or, worst of all, maybe the children were abused-leaving social workers and the courts no choice but to place them with foster parents who can provide a safe haven and genuine though temporary care. Many of these kids have "special needs." They may be older or paired with a brother or sister. Some may be physically or emotionally fragile. But I feel strongly that no child is:
"unadoptable."

There are many great parents out there who are eager to open their homes and their hearts to these wonderful boys and girls. How can we bring these parents and kids together? What will it take to help the thousands of American children in foster care? There's no easy answer, and each child in each state presents unique challenges, because adoption laws vary from state to state. We can, however, do a lot to make it easier for waiting kids and parents to connect and build families.

First, we need to make adoption more affordable. Every adoption is set up differently, depending on whether it is a private adoption or an agency adoption. Today, the adoption of a healthy baby can cost between $11,000 and $20,000 or more. Adoptive parents may have to pay for everything from attorneys' fees and medical expenses (for the birth mother as well as the child) to home visits by caseworkers and court costs, and sometimes travel to the baby's city.

There is little or no cost, however, to someone who adopts a child with special needs or a child from a minority culture or group. In fact, state and/or federal subsidies usually are available to parents to help defray the costs of raising children with special needs.

Starting in 1997, the federal government will offer a tax credit of up to $5,000 per child to cover the cost of adoption for families with annual incomes of less than $115,000; those who adopt a child with special needs will receive up to $6,000. New federal guidelines also may make it easier for parents to adopt a child of a different race. About 60 percent of adoptable children come from minority groups, with most being African-American, yet 67 percent of the families waiting to adopt are white. Some would like to adopt a black child, but until now they have faced hurdles because some placement agencies favor race matching. The new federal law-which bars any agency that receives federal funds from denying or delaying adoptions solely on the basis or race, color or national origin-may help many of these youngsters find homes.

These new laws are positive signs. But businesses must get involved too. They can provide the same assistance to employees who adopt children that they offer to employees who give birth. At our company, we provide time off with pay and up to $4,000 for a regular adoption, and up to $6,000 for employees who adopt a special-needs child. This is a simple and inexpensive benefit.

Second, we need to cut the bureaucracy that can delay adoptions in the U.S. by months or, sometimes, even years. That is far too long. No child should be trapped in the system and kept from a family because of red tape.

Finally, and most important, we need to hear more about the positive side of adoption. We read a lot about adoption these days, and the news isn't always good. The "Baby Richard" stories-about the conflicts between birth parents and foster or adoptive parents-account for only a handful of all adoptions. We cannot allow these few incidents to discourage parents and keep children trapped in foster care.

Have you ever talked with a family that adopted? Every day I meet moms and dads who share the tremendous joy and love that their adopted children have brought them. Adoption has blessed their lives-and the lives of thousands of other parents.

Last December, Deanna received the Christmas gift of her dreams: a family who wanted her for their very own. And last May-eight years after entering the foster-care system-Deanna was adopted by that family. Today, she has a mom and dad, Sherada and Bob, who really want to share their lives and dreams with her. She also has a room of her own in a two-story house in Kansas City and funky new clothes. And she is excited about starting a new life. She also knows how lucky she is.

For the thousands of boys and girls who have not been so lucky, remember: It's not their fault. Every child deserves a home and a loving family. By making adoption easier for parents, we help the children, and everybody wins.

Dave Thomas, founder o f Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurants, was adopted as an infant. Asked by President George Bush to be the spokesman for the nation's "Adoption Works... for Everyone" initiative, Thomas started a campaign to raise awareness about adoption and to help improve the system.

Credits: Dave Thomas

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