Every month, we choose one organization to highlight and support through our Split Shot program. This June, we chose The Way Home Adoption, an agency working to ensure that kids find adoptive homes before aging out of the foster care system. A 2nd Cup Founder and Executive Director, Erica Raggett, speaks with Ashley Fields, Co-Founder and Director of The Way Home Adoption.
Erica: Hi, I’m Erica Raggett, Founder and Executive Director of A 2nd Cup. We are a nonprofit coffee shop working to fight human trafficking by educating the public, partnering with like-minded organizations, and investing aftercare for survivors of trafficking.
Every month we choose one organization we can highlight and support financially with proceeds from our Split Shot drink of the month. This June we have chosen The Way Home Adoption and I’m so excited to be here today with Ashley Fields. She is the Founder and Director of the Way Home and she is going to share a little bit more about the work they do.
So, Ashley, thank you so much for being here with me today. I would love to start by having you share an overview of the work that you do at The Way Home.
Ashley: Yes, thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to have this conversation. The Way Home was created to get kids out of the foster care system, very simply. We focused on the ages of 11 to 17 because that’s where you traditionally see adoption rates drop off dramatically, and those are the kids that are most likely to age out of the system. And you know, we see the statistics have been the same for decades about what happens to kids when they age out of the system.
So, The Way Home was created really to focus on this subset of the population in foster care. The population that’s least likely to get adopted and to provide services that work for them. There are some reasons that traditional adoption efforts don’t really work for those kids. So, we wanted to provide services that really work for these kids and raise the adoption rates and get these kids out of foster care and into permanent families.
Erica: Yeah, that’s awesome! So I know from experience that starting an organization is a lot of hard work, so I’m curious like what moved you to step into that.
Ashley: Well, my personal story is I was a CPS worker like 20 years ago. I started my career in child welfare as a CPS caseworker. I sort of became the person in our unit that took on all of the teen cases. Teenagers are moved more often, their cases are a lot more time consuming. So that’s really where the seeds were planted for me is working for CPS and seeing the experiences of these kids who are growing up in foster care.
And then you know, fast forward 10 years – I met Kendall, who is my Co-founder, and she had just done her dissertation on the causes of homelessness, one of which is foster care. 50% of our homeless population is from foster care. And so she was passionate about it from sort of a different background. And she’s in development and I’m a social worker, so the two of us luckily had complementary skill sets.
And so we just spent honestly a couple years talking about, you know, this issue. We both felt passionate about addressing it, but we weren’t sure what the answer was. So, we did a lot of research. We talked to a lot of agencies around the country and came to realize that the answer is not trying to fix the foster care system or add more services to the foster care system. It’s very simply just to get kids out of the foster care system. So then the question became, well, how do you do that for teenagers when traditionally that doesn’t happen for them?
And so, we were lucky to learn from a couple agencies around the country that do really innovative evidence-based practices. And we took bits and pieces of each of their models and developed The Way Home. And I, you know, I think I’ve said this to you before, I’ve always wondered how you did this without a Co-Founder. Were it not for Kendall, this would not have worked if it were just me. It really took both of us and it’s been kind of a thrill to see it come to life and grow beyond just, you know, she and I sitting together 10 years ago.
Erica: Yeah, I mean I love several things about that story, but like one – that you were, it was like research based and you were kind of evaluating the field and figuring out what gaps existed and trying to fill those gaps. But also that you went out and talked to other organizations to find out like – What are the best practices? And what can we be doing? And getting creative ideas. And yeah, I just love that.
Ashley: Well, thank you.
Erica: Yeah, so I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about like why is it so important for these older kiddos to be adopted?
Ashley: So, there is, like I mentioned earlier, a ton of statistics about what happens when these kids age out. So typically, what that looks like is we have kids who have been in the foster care system since they were nine months old, and now they’re 14. So, we are dealing with, in a lot of cases, kids who spend the majority of their childhood in foster care. For some of the time is shorter, but for any child spending any amount of time in foster care. They are experiencing a lot of trauma and a lot of loss. And what we see is that kids fall behind academically. They are suffering emotionally. And then they turn 18 and sign themselves out of foster care because they think they can do it on their own.
And then this is when we see all these statistics. You know 50% of our homeless population, 70% of our penitentiary population spent time in foster care. They have a much higher rate of being victimized and having substance abuse issues. The average kid who leaves foster care at 18 leaves it without a high school diploma on a 7th grade reading level. And so all of those things are obviously, you know, dire for these kids and for our community and what we found is that adoption is the only proven solution.
We can add services. We can try and improve the system. We can, you know, try to give kids tutoring in foster care, but what really changes these statistics is adoption. And so that’s why it’s important, because it changes their lives and then in effect changes our community.
Erica: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I feel like that’s a really good segue into, you know, typically our Split Shot partners of the month that we partner with are solely focused on human trafficking. But over the past several months, we’ve been talking to more organizations who kind of work on the front end of that and try to, like, they’re working on issues that can help prevent human trafficking. So, I was hoping you could share a little bit about what you see as the intersection between the foster care system and child welfare in general and human trafficking.
Ashley: So, the statistic we have hanging in A 2nd Cup right now, for anyone who has been in there, is it 60% of kids who are rescued from human trafficking in the US are from foster care. And so, this this age set that we are working with, 11 to 17, are super vulnerable to that. We are like feeding the system with these kids from foster care who don’t have any consistent adults. You know, many times don’t feel like they have a place to stay – they either run away or again sign themselves out at 18 and end up on the streets.
So, you know, by getting kids adopted by giving them a safe place to live and grow and thrive outside of the system, we’re sort of cutting off the supply if you will.
And so, you know, we talk about that a lot because we are not a human trafficking agency. But we are sort of preventing these kids from being vulnerable to that by getting them out of the system and into adoptive homes.
Erica: Yeah, exactly, that’s awesome. This is super compelling. So, if somebody is interested in adopting, what do their next steps look?
Ashley: Our program is designed to give folks new on ramps to explore this idea. What we know for sure is that teenage adoption works better when the family and the child have a prior relationship. So everything about our program is based on this premise. We do, sort of a cold case unit, case mining to find people that already have that relationship. And if we can’t find anyone then we provide opportunities for kids to build those relationships that can then grow into adoptive homes.
So, if you’re interested in adoption, then we invite you to come volunteer with us. And what that looks like is our Enrich and Engage program happens once a month, and we provide enriching events for our kids. So, we’ve done golf lessons and cooking classes and art classes. We’re going to a museum this month. And volunteers who are interested in adoption come and just volunteer with us. You help with driving, help pass out the pizza, help you know, facilitate the golf lesson, whatever it is we’re doing that month. And it gives you and these kids a chance to get to know each other, see if there’s a connection. Because we know those natural connections are what leads to successful adoptions. We can’t match you on a checklist. You might come in thinking that you’d be really great with a girl and then you meet, you know, one of the boys, and that’s just who you sort of feel compelled to continue on with. So, if you’re interested in adoption, reach out to us, my email or through the website. And you can come volunteer with us and really get to know these kids who are looking for homes and see where natural connections exist.
Erica: If somebody, you know, I feel like there are probably a number of people out there who are listening and are really compelled by this, but don’t feel like adoption is right for them, at least at this point in time. What are some other ways that they can support the work that you guys are doing?
Ashley: A really simple but impactful way to help is to follow us on Facebook. Sign up for the newsletter. I mean, one of our biggest obstacles is that this issue and these kids are a little bit invisible to most of us. Unless you’ve worked in child welfare or you know someone who’s engaged in the system. Most people aren’t really aware of how many of these kids there are, where they’re living, what their needs are, and that adoption really works for them.
So you know, get to know us a little bit. You’ll meet our kids on Facebook. You’ll learn a little about a little bit about what they need and why this is important and then share that with your friends. Share it with your community. Help this issue stop being one that is sort of hidden in the shadows.
Erica: I would like to kind of close out with a little information about the gallery that’s currently hanging in our shop. Can you talk about the purpose behind it and the vision and where people can find it once it’s not hanging at A 2nd Cup anymore.
Ashley: OK, so the Hearts Who Need Homes gallery is part of our adoption recruitment. So, all of the kids you see who are, and there’s actually a board behind me. We have physical boards and we have boards that can be shared on social media. But the idea is these are the kids that we were not able to find someone from their family or from their past. And so all of the kids in the gallery are kids that we are going out to the community and saying, you know, this is in that case right there, that Serenity, this is what she’s like. This is what kind of home she would thrive in. And this is based on again, evidence that shows that teenage adoption typically happens based on a connection with a specific youth. Most people don’t come to want to adopt a teenager without having a teenager in mind that they think they’d be a good fit for. So, getting their faces and their stories in front of people helps folks in the audience assess whether or not they would be a good fit and which kid they might be a good fit for.
So, the Hearts Who Need Homes gallery is our traveling gallery of all the kids we’re working with who are in need of adoptive homes. If anyone is watching and wants to host it, it moves around. Right now it’s in A 2nd Cup. Go check it out. Buy a pineapple shandy while you’re there. And the physical boards can move from space to space. We’ve had people just hang one board. We’ve had, I think A 2nd Cup right now has all 12, and so you can host the physical gallery. Or you can host the gallery on social media and share it with your Facebook or Instagram followers. It is also always on our website. If you want to check out the kids who are who we are recruiting for, you can find their information, their stories and their faces on our website.
Erica: Well, thank you so much for sharing and spending time with me today. But more than that, thank you for the work that you guys are doing. As a former middle school teacher, I am just so in love with what you’re doing and recognize its importance just in building our community, but also in helping to prevent human trafficking, so thank you!
Ashley: Well and thank you for what you guys are doing for human trafficking and how you’ve sort of brought the community together about this issue. It’s really been amazing to watch and I’m happy to be involved.
Ashley Fields – firstname.lastname@example.org
The Way Home – www.thewayhomeadoption.org