Kansas Enacts New Permanency Option for Older Youth in Foster Care

Posted April 19, 2024
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Gabriella Guido, Cory Seller, Marquan Teetz, Nykia Watkins, Carol Roberts and Kassi McDowell

From left: Kansas advocates Gabriella Guido, Cory Seller, Marquan Teetz (holding child), Nykia Watkins, Carol Roberts and Kassi McDowell.

On April 15, 2024, Kansas Gov. Lau­ra Kel­ly signed a law mak­ing the state the first in the nation to cre­ate a SOUL Fam­i­ly legal per­ma­nen­cy option — a way for old­er youth in fos­ter care to form legal, last­ing families.

The law allows young peo­ple ages 16 and old­er who are in fos­ter care to estab­lish per­ma­nent legal bonds with trust­ed adult care­givers with­out sev­er­ing legal ties to their bio­log­i­cal par­ents and sib­lings. Fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships legal­ized under SOUL Fam­i­ly will be eli­gi­ble for ser­vices that help young peo­ple tran­si­tion suc­cess­ful­ly to adult­hood, including:

  • finan­cial support;
  • edu­ca­tion­al ben­e­fits; and
  • health cov­er­age.

Now Kansans ages 16 and old­er who are leav­ing fos­ter care will be empow­ered to choose who will join them on their jour­ney as they grow into the next phase of their lives, fin­ish school­ing, set­tle into jobs and become adult mem­bers of their greater com­mu­ni­ty,” says Kansas Depart­ment for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies (DCF) Sec­re­tary Lau­ra Howard.

A Per­ma­nen­cy Inno­va­tion in Kansas

SOUL stands for Sup­port, Oppor­tu­ni­ty, Uni­ty and Legal Rela­tion­ships. The frame­work for SOUL Fam­i­ly was orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived in 2018 by Jim Casey Fel­lows — young lead­ers and advo­cates with fos­ter care expe­ri­ence who par­tic­i­pate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive®. In 2022, state DCF lead­ers and young Kansans who have expe­ri­enced fos­ter care com­mit­ted to devel­op­ing a SOUL Fam­i­ly pro­pos­al as an inno­v­a­tive solu­tion to address the state’s high num­ber of young peo­ple exit­ing fos­ter care with­out sol­id rela­tion­ships and con­nec­tions. In Kansas, more than 56% of youths 16 and old­er leave fos­ter care with­out per­ma­nent families.

Inno­va­tions like SOUL Fam­i­ly are need­ed to help reduce the num­ber of young peo­ple leav­ing fos­ter care with­out crit­i­cal rela­tion­ships and sup­port,” says Leslie Gross, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Fam­i­ly Well-Being Strat­e­gy Group. Nation­al­ly, 51% of old­er youths in fos­ter care — about 20,000 — age out of these sys­tems each year.

Young lead­ers, advo­cates, DCF offi­cials and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the state’s four pri­vate fos­ter care providers adapt­ed SOUL Fam­i­ly to address Kansas’ spe­cif­ic child wel­fare needs. They will con­tin­ue to part­ner in design­ing the mech­a­nisms for imple­ment­ing and sup­port­ing the plan.

All old­er youth in fos­ter care want the abil­i­ty to choose,” says Mar­quan MT” Teetz, an advo­cate for the per­ma­nen­cy option who told leg­is­la­tors about his expe­ri­ence in Kansas’ fos­ter care sys­tem. We’ve been ordered most of our lives by a sys­tem that does­n’t under­stand us or the con­nec­tions we’ve built.”

The devel­op­ment of SOUL Fam­i­ly marks a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in the state’s jour­ney toward more youth-led and youth-cen­tered case plan­ning. When the new per­ma­nen­cy option is imple­ment­ed, young peo­ple can choose care­givers from a group of adults, includ­ing kin, with whom they already have sol­id rela­tion­ships, to ensure they leave fos­ter care with last­ing bonds and support.

Had it been avail­able for me,” Teetz says, SOUL Fam­i­ly could have allowed me and my aunt to remain togeth­er and offered the nec­es­sary resources and guid­ance to help us nav­i­gate our situation.”

The Ori­gin of the SOUL Fam­i­ly Model

In 2018, a group of Jim Casey Fel­lows saw a need for a new legal per­ma­nen­cy option for old­er youth in fos­ter care. The exist­ing legal per­ma­nen­cy options — reuni­fi­ca­tion, adop­tion and guardian­ship — are effec­tive for find­ing per­ma­nent fam­i­lies for many young peo­ple. How­ev­er, they do not address the com­plex­i­ties, needs and breadth of expe­ri­ences of many old­er youth who need rock-sol­id life­long connections.

The Fel­lows envi­sioned a way to ensure more young peo­ple could leave fos­ter care with the sense of sta­bil­i­ty and belong­ing pro­vid­ed by a lov­ing, last­ing and legal fam­i­ly. Their idea, which they lat­er named SOUL Fam­i­ly, would:

  • pro­vide a plan­ning process that expands and hon­ors the young person’s abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy poten­tial care­givers in their own net­works of sup­port­ive adult rela­tion­ships — includ­ing kin and non-kin who are cho­sen family;
  • allow young peo­ple to remain legal­ly con­nect­ed to their bio­log­i­cal par­ents and siblings;
  • estab­lish their new legal fam­i­ly for life, rec­og­nized by the courts and the com­mu­ni­ty; and
  • ensure the young peo­ple receive the same types of finan­cial sup­port and ser­vices attached to oth­er per­ma­nen­cy options so they do not have to choose between gain­ing a fam­i­ly and receiv­ing need­ed ser­vices or assistance.

SOUL Fam­i­ly rep­re­sents the pow­er of solu­tions cre­at­ed by young peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced the child wel­fare sys­tem — and know best what they need to thrive into adult­hood,” says Gross. This new per­ma­nen­cy option has the poten­tial to change the tra­jec­to­ry for young peo­ple who need fam­i­lies. We are extreme­ly proud of the Jim Casey Fel­lows who designed this inno­va­tion and their peers and part­ners in Kansas who are col­lab­o­rat­ing to make it a reality.”

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