Darlene Allen, the executive director of Adoption Rhode Island, has held that post for 14 years. She is an experienced child welfare professional who has dedicated her career to helping at-risk children and families.
Allen received her Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Providence College in 1983 and her Master of Science degree in Human Service Administration from the University of Massachusetts in 1991. For the past 30 years, Darlene has worked in both public and private organizations within the child welfare system both in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, providing services to promote, safety, stability and permanency for children as well as advocating on a local and national level for improved child welfare programs, policies and practices.
She also has been recognized with a Congressional Angel in Adoption award for her commitment to children waiting for adoption. She co-chairs a statewide Child Welfare Advisory Committee and participates in numerous statewide child advocacy initiatives.
PBN: How does your nonprofit agency work with state agencies to coordinate the best possible foster care or adoption arrangement for a child?
ALLEN: Adoption Rhode Island receives 50 percent of its funding from the state and works very closely with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families as well as the Rhode Island Family Court on behalf of the children in our foster care system that need permanent families. The organization serves as the state’s Adoption Exchange and therefore is an integral part of state statute, policy and permanency planning practices. All children in Rhode Island who need adoption recruitment are referred to our Recruitment and Matching program.
We also recruit families from the community and refer them for training and screening by the state. Once the state has completed a home study and approved the family to adopt, they are referred to our Recruitment and Matching program. And we have trained adoption social workers who work closely with the children and families and help every step of the way.
We also provide many different programs and services that focus on improving the lives of children in foster care. One of our programs is called the Heart Gallery. This is a program that pairs professional photographers with children who need families. The photographers take beautiful photos of the children and Printmakers, Inc. creates canvas portraits. About 20 children per year participate in it. The portraits are displayed together in businesses across Rhode Island. They help to raise awareness about children in foster care and have been very successful in finding families for children. The photographers and Printmakers donate all of their services.
PBN: What is the most up-to-date number of children in foster care and how many of them are likely to get adopted? What happens to those who don’t get adopted and how does your agency intervene on their behalf?
ALLEN: There are approximately 2,000 children in Rhode Island’s foster care system on any given day. This is a significant decrease from five years ago as more children and families are receiving services to prevent them from having children enter the formal foster care system. When children do enter the foster care system, the primary goal is almost always reunification. The state provides services to the children and families to help send those children back home. After a year of services, if the child is unable to safely return home, the state and Rhode Island Family Court determine if the state should consider adoption as the primary goal and search for a family that will provide a forever home.
That is where we come in. In 2012, there were 396 children with the goal of adoption. Our agency intervenes on their behalf in many ways. Besides finding families for the children, we also provide counseling and supportive services to children in foster care. Part of our focus is finding ways to keep kids hopeful. We reach out to individuals and businesses to help us accomplish this aspect of our mission. Because of community support, we are able to host birthday parties, send brothers and sisters separated in foster care to camp together, provide holiday gifts, art lessons and much, much more.
Rhode Island is rated first in the nation by the Children’s Bureau for timeliness to adoption. Even though we are very proud of this because we do not want children to remain in foster care any longer than necessary, there are still far too many children that age-out of our foster care system without a permanent family to care for them. This is something that breaks our hearts and motivates us daily to advocate on their behalf. We continue to provide limited emergency support and information and referral services for those youth. We work with the state and other non-profit organizations to try to help these kids.
Many youth who age-out of foster care without a family fare poorly. The vast majority do not go to college; they lack economic security, experience food insecurity and homelessness. Although there are some amazing and resilient youth who have beaten the odds, many unfortunately enter the prison system and are raising children alone. The economic and moral costs of not finding families for children in our foster care system are enormous. By building and supporting adoptive families, we are building and supporting the betterment of our community.
PBN: Give an example of the connection your agency helped make that resulted in adoption and a lasting connection for the child and family?
ALLEN: We are entering our 30th anniversary and have helped more than 1,300 children find adoptive families. One of our primary partners in this mission is WJAR NBC10. We work together to develop the “Tuesday’s Child” segment. Each week Anchorwoman Patrice Wood interviews a child in need of a family or a family who has adopted a child from foster care. These segments are very moving and quite successful. They help us to bring the stories of our beautiful children to the public and have resulted in hundreds of adoptions. There is nothing more gratifying than to know that you have played a part in bringing children and families together. It is something that has an impact that lasts for generations. For some kids, it literally saves their life.
PBN: What other agencies support the work you do, particularly with respect to abused, neglected, or abandoned children, and how does that help you be more effective?
ALLEN: Because we serve children from every community in our state, we have the opportunity to work with many public and private organizations that help improve the lives of abused and neglected children. In addition to the DCYF, two of our partners that I would like to mention are CASA and the VOCA program. CASA is the Court Appointed Special Advocate program. This program provides legal and social work services for abused children involved in the family court. Our local program also recruits members of the community to become volunteers. These volunteers help to bring the voice of abused children to the court and they are strong advocates for children. It is a great way for individuals who want to give back to the community to help kids that really need community support.
The VOCA program is the Victim of Crime Act program. This program provides us with support to provide counseling services to children who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect. This program helps the children heal from that victimization so we can prepare them to move in with adoptive families. Many of the children we work with have an extensive and traumatic history. They need this type of service to be able to integrate their past and prepare for their future. It is hard to trust that a new family won’t hurt you when all you know is the hurt.
PBN: Give an example of innovative programming that helped the most vulnerable children.
ALLEN: We have this great partnership between business, child welfare and higher education that has set out to change the educational outcomes for children in foster care. The First Star URI Academy is a college preparation program for high school age foster youth. The kids stay on the campus of the University of Rhode Island for a month over the summer and they participate in monthly activities throughout the year. They receive academic instruction, participate in recreational opportunities, listen to motivational speakers and learn about college.
Although the program has only been in existence for less than two years, we are already seeing great results. Hasbro is the primary funder and the University of Rhode Island has fully embraced and supported the program in more ways than I can list.