Kansas to Pilot Permanency Option for Older Youth in Foster Care
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Fellows have proposed a new legal pathway for young adults in foster care to build permanent families. The option would allow youth ages 16 and older to choose a circle of caregivers and kin to serve as their lifelong SOUL Family.
SOUL stands for support, opportunity, unity and legal relationships, which describe the goals of the proposed permanency pathway.
Expanding the Pathways to Permanency
States have long offered three pathways to permanency for young adults in foster care: adoption, legal guardianship and reunification. These current options “do not fit every young person’s circumstances. They did not fit mine,” says Patricia Duh, a Jim Casey Fellow from Hawaii and permanency consultant for SOUL Family.
Duh recalls that, when her time in extended foster care ran out, she was left to manage her basic needs, reconnect with estranged birth family members and begin to heal. If a SOUL Family option had existed, she says, her path to self-sufficiency might have been less stressful.
“There is no one shoe, one size, that fits all youth when they age out,” Duh says. “We have to begin to develop other options.”
Cue the Kansas Department for Children and Families, which has signed on to serve as a SOUL Family demonstration site.
“We are thrilled to welcome partners in Kansas to this vital effort of strengthening and expanding legal permanency options for teens in foster care,” says Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of Casey’s Center for Systems Innovation.
A Youth-led Initiative
SOUL Family’s innovators — people who, like Duh, are no strangers to foster care — are seeking legal recognition for the proposal so that states can offer it to young adults as option no. 4 in the pathway to permanency.
Their quest is decidedly personal.
“SOUL Family is a promising proposal responding to needs identified by young people who experienced aging out,” Gasca-Gonzalez explains. “They crafted this proposal to make the path easier in the future for youth who need families.”
Jim Casey Fellows Speak Up
Since 2018, Jim Casey Fellows from 17 sites across the nation have been sharing their experiences with adoption, family reunification and legal guardianship. Some lived on their own after aging out of foster care. Some experienced failed placements. Many believe they had little or no power in decisions that defined their families as they left foster care.
While working with child welfare experts, legal advocates, allies and peers, they concluded that the existing permanency options need to be strengthened and expanded. They want a permanency option to provide:
- connections to their siblings, communities and cultures to support their sense of wholeness and belonging;
- relationships that last beyond the state-designated age of maturity;
- freedom from the too-common dilemma of having to choose between gaining a permanent family or receiving financial assistance for basic needs; and
- a voice in decisions made about their futures and their families.
“As a young person myself that did not achieve permanency, SOUL Family spoke to me so much,” recalls Andrew Salazar, a Jim Casey Fellow and SOUL Family permanency consultant from New Mexico. “It gives young people the chance not only at achieving permanency but at achieving permanency on their own terms.”
Entering Adulthood Alone
Every year, about 20,000 young people — almost half of youth ages 16 and older in foster care — transition out of foster care without a loving, supportive and permanent family. Black and Hispanic youth are disproportionately among those suddenly on their own and at risk of experiencing homelessness and other major setbacks.
“To address the continuing challenges of young people transitioning from foster care without a family, we must be bold and innovative and try something new — something designed by young people, who know best what they need,” says Leslie Gross, who directs Casey’s Family Well-Being Strategy Group.
How SOUL Family Would Work
The proposed pathway positions young people, ages 16 and older, to choose one or more primary caregivers and additional caring adults to be their SOUL Family. Primary caregivers would commit to forming a legally recognized, lifelong relationship with the young person, and the other adults would articulate their supportive roles.
Forming a SOUL Family would not sever the young person’s biological family ties. Members of the SOUL Family could include birth parents, relatives and siblings as well as former foster parents, mentors, coaches and other family friends. This new and expanded concept of family would support youth in accessing critical resources, including paying for basic needs, such as housing and education expenses. The exact aid offered may differ from state to state.
For Duh, the evolution of SOUL Family is a welcome move in the right direction, driven by the right experts. “We all need to listen to what young people are telling us regarding permanency,” she says. “They have a wide range of hopes and individualized needs, and our systems and laws need to reflect that.”