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When COVID-19 slowed adoptions, this agency found a new way to help children

When coronavirus slowed adoptions, Heart Gallery of Sarasota started using its Family Finder technology to send ads to prospective families. It's working.
/ Source: TODAY

Like so many others, Matthew Straeb saw life transform dramatically in March. But the changes that came with the COVID-19 crisis didn’t just upend his life, they also interfered in the lives of the more than 400,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted. His adoption organization went from receiving a hundred calls a month to about 10.

“We were shocked at the reduction,” Straeb, the president of Heart Gallery of Sarasota, Florida, told TODAY Parents. “It makes sense — (It’s harder) bringing kids into your home when there were some legitimate barriers there."

But Straeb wasn’t going to let those children down. The Heart Gallery of Sarasota launched its program, Family Finder, which uses ads targeted to prospective adoptive families to match them with children in the child welfare system. People who respond to ads receive a response within 24 hours and then the agency gives them loads of information, videos and photos of children awaiting adoption.

“We knew there was a huge audience out there of people, families that wanted to adopt and help these kids,” he explained. “But how do we get to them … We can go out (to them) rather than wait for these folks to come to us.”

When their personalities shine, their chances of being adopted increase.

While it sounds like a simple concept, technology used in adoption and fostering is generally not that advanced. Recruiting families often involved flyers or photos at a public place, such as an airport or farmers’ market, Straeb said. And, it required a lot of waiting.

“We were able to implement this technology after COVID hit, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of inquiries,” Straeb said. “We actually expanded the audience to regional and even nationwide.”

What’s more, the organization hopes technology will help lessen the amount of time it takes for parents to qualify to adopt, leaving fewer children stuck in limbo.

“Our goal is to reduce what used to take six or nine months to license to like six to eight weeks,” Straeb said. “We believe that that's going to accelerate the number of families (because) they won’t lose interest.”

This isn’t the first time that Heart Gallery of America used social media to bolster adoption. The nationwide organization shares pictures — taken by professional photographers — and a profile to help children to show who they really are. Many of these children are considered "difficult" to adopt: They might be older or are part of a large sibling group. But when their personalities shine, their chances of being adopted increase.

“That's had a tremendous impact on we can reach and how we can reach them,” Straeb said. “We probably affect about 8,000 children a year.”

Samuel, Ashley, Kayleigh and Mikel all have experience as older children in the system who are hoping for a family. They spoke with TODAY co-anchor Hoda Kotb about their lives.

“I didn’t think anybody would adopt me,” Ashley told Kotb. “I thought that I would age out.”

At 16, when she learned she was being adopted she felt stunned. She’s now in college and started a nonprofit that gives foster children luggage and duffle bags. That way they don't have to shove their belongings in trash bags. Mikel, who was in foster care for 14 years, moved in with a mom of two, who is fostering him and planning on adopting him. Kayleigh hopes she, too, will find a family and assures potential parents that adoption is worth it.

“When you take that chance, you might find the right kid for you,” she told Kotb. “When you take that chance and give your love.”

People interested in adoption can learn more at Heart Gallery of America or Adopt US Kids.