In a newspaper portrait from last May, Becca Eldredge flashes a delighted smile as she stands beside her husband and son and their newly-adopted 13-year-old daughter outside their Florida home. The teen girl a floral dress and a tiara and holds a small marquee that reads After 1,783 days in foster care, today I was adopted.
"There are so many children who need a home and love," Eldredge says. "My daughter has brought so much joy and fun into our house."
Over 400,000 children across the U.S. currently live in foster care, due in large part to the country's opioid crisis. More than 120,000 of these kids have been permanently relinquished by birth parents; they often wait years for adoptive families and a stable home. Many age out of the system without either, leaving them vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. But Familyfinder--a new Florida-based digital program relying on targeted advertising--may change all that.
Matthew Straeb is president of the Sarasota Heart Gallery, a national organization that displays professional portraits of adoptable foster youth in businesses across the country with the hope that adults might see and adopt them. He came up with Familyfinder in response to a sharp decline in adoption and foster care applications during the pandemic.
The program searches for public information on a potential parent's geographic location, ethnicity, and other pertinent details, then delivers ads via Facebook and Google. In one, a child in purple shorts and a blue t-shirt grins in front of a palm tree below the words, "With our support, you could change a child's life and make a difference."
Click on ad's "Apply Now" link, and you get a personal call from staff within a day, along with digital tools and animated videos that describe the process of adopting a child from the foster care system. Staff maintain continuous contact with potential parents to maintain their momentum. The result? Teens and sibling groups—difficult to place because many moms and dads want single babies—are finally ditching their duffle bags filled with meager personal belongings and moving into permanent homes with adoptive parents.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Straeb of the Sarasota Heart Gallery.
Katie Nail entered foster care at six months old and lived in 15 different placements before she was a teen. Twice, she was featured in The Heart Gallery, in her home state of Alabama. There's a video of her at age 11 with big blue eyes and shoulder-length black hair, explaining to the person interviewing her that she wants a family that "loves me forever, and to know that I'm safe for all my life." Seven years ago, a couple saw the video and adopted her. Now, Nail is a student at Yale.
Still, The Heart Gallery seemed to Straeb an inefficient way to match children with adoptive parents, especially knowing the trauma that incurs every day a kid languishes in the foster care system. "Let's say you're a nine-year-old kid and the police come to your house and give you a trash bag and tell you to go get your stuff," he says. "You're ripped out of your home, away from your family, and put into a stranger's house. The longer a kid is in that situation, the more negative the impact. We want to reduce a child's time in foster care."
A tech-minded entrepreneur, Straeb contemplated the ways in which he might harness the power of Google and Facebook advertising to locate adoptive parents. "I mean, all I have to do is think about buying a bicycle, and before I know it, I've got a hundred ads on my phone telling me about bicycles," he explains. "If tech can do that, then why can't we flip the model for our purposes? Rather than wait around for families for these kids, let's go find the families."
He and colleagues identified the characteristics of adults most likely to adopt. "For instance, we know that seventy percent of foster and adoptive families in our region are faith-based," he explains. "And we know, based on experience, that there's a certain age range, and that females are most likely to germinate the idea of adoption. Right there, we've nailed down the parameters quite a bit." He adds locale, ethnicity, and specific religious practices into the mix to increase the chances of a positive match.
Since its launch last June, Familyfinder has shown a significant increase in foster and adoptive parent inquiries, and saved the state $28,200 for every child placed with a family. Straeb and his colleagues plan to expand the program throughout Florida, and hope to conduct pilot projects in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Ideally, they'd like a philanthropy group attached to Google or Facebook to take over the project. "Then we could offer it to the whole country," he says. "With their support, we could solve this whole problem of getting these kids adopted."
Becca Eldredge is hopeful, as well. "Familyfinder is a way to get more information out there so that people understand that they can adopt from the foster care system," she says. "I don't think people realize how many children are waiting for homes."
She describes the rewards of adopting a teen from the state—benefits that expand beyond the personal to the global. "A lot of these kids, if they're given love and support, are huge change-makers, because they've had to develop resilience at such a young age," she says. "If people step up for them, they're going to be the kids who make a difference in the next generation. I know for a fact that my daughter is going to change some part of the world someday."
Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Twitter @WildMelissaHart .
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