Alumna uses legal skills to guide foundation that helps find loving homes for foster children
Walking into the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption offices, located in the northern Columbus area, visitors are immediately greeted by visual depictions along the walls of smiling, happy families. In each of these framed photographs lies a success story of one of the thousands of foster care children the foundation has helped place in loving homes since its inception in 1992.
As someone who spent five years in the foster care system herself before being adopted around her 18th birthday, Melinda Haggerty ’10 is passionate about her work at the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. As senior vice president and general counsel, she wears a number of hats, providing support for different departments throughout the organization.
“I manage all of our grant contracts with all of our grantees, I do some judges training on legal permanency for children in foster care—our mission is actually to get children out of foster care into adoptive homes—as well as the general compliance work that keeps organizations running smoothly,” Haggerty explained. “I also ensure that we’re doing everything we need to do to keep our nonprofit status, manage the charitable soliciting regulations in all 50 states where we are fundraising, and assist with employment law issues.”
Currently in a growth phase, the foundation approaches the adoption process in a different way than has traditionally been done in the past—looking for the right family for children versus the other way around. Working with private and nonprofit agencies, they provide grants and support to organizations who agree to hire adoption recruiters that follow the foundation’s evidence-based model for adoption.
“Starting around the early 2000s, we decided we wanted to be able to show how we were directly impacting the number of children being adopted from foster care. We started looking at best practices around the country for getting older children and harder-to-place children adopted. So we put together something we call the child-focused recruitment model, which we branded Wendy’s Wonderful Kids,” Haggerty said.
“We start with the child and try to find the right family for this child. Instead of looking for strangers, recruiters using our model first build a relationship with that child to find out what they need from an adoptive family and who they would feel comfortable with as a potential adoptive parent. Our recruiters also look at all of the child’s case history, as some of these kids have been in foster care since they were small children, and contact everyone from the child’s past in an attempt to find an adoptive home,” she explained.
“We have subsequently been able to find adoptive homes that are outside of the box. Maybe it’s a friend of a child’s parents who didn’t know he was in care, or teachers, barbers, really we’re looking for the right fit for that child, someone who already loves that child, which is especially important when you’re talking about older kids.”
And the process works. According to statistics from the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, children served by the program are up to three times more likely to be adopted out of foster care.
It’s a truly rewarding experience, Haggerty said. “When a child is adopted from foster care, we not only change that child’s life, but we change their family tree. The cycle of abuse often times repeats itself over generations. And we’re interrupting that cycle for all future generations to come. Knowing that I can be a part of an organization that does this type of work really means a lot to me.”
From the time Haggerty was a small child, while other children were dreaming of becoming firefighters and doctors, she always saw herself as a lawyer. “What really drew me to the legal profession was the ability to help people. I felt that if I really knew the law, I could really be an advocate for people,” she explained.
During her time in law school, Haggerty said she pictured herself possibly working with children in a guardian ad litem type position, serving as their voice and standing up for their best interests. She took courses like Adoption Law and a clinical experience to prepare herself for possible work in this area. Haggerty credits Clinic Professor Elizabeth Ilgen Cooke ’94, however, with helping put her on the path to her current position with the Dave Thomas Foundation.
“I found my first job through one of my professors in law school actually, which didn’t have anything to do with children. The attorneys I was working with, however, introduced me to Attorney General Mike DeWine. He is very interested in kids’ issues from his days in the senate, and we talked about my background and my story and that’s how I got my job at the AG’s office as the director of children’s initiatives. I worked on child welfare, human trafficking, and juvenile justice issues while I was there, and I had the opportunity to do a lot of policy and legislation work,” she said.
While work in this area can be difficult, especially when Haggerty and her colleagues at the Dave Thomas Foundation work across states lines with numerous agencies and organizations working under different state laws and policies, it’s something she wouldn’t change for the world, she said.
“I just know what a huge impact being adopted out of foster care made on my life, and it’s important to me to be able make that same kind of impact in the lives of children who are currently waiting in foster care.”