The program is called SOUL Family. It’s an alternative to adoption and other exits from the foster care system.
by Blaise Mesa
- A proposed foster care change gives foster youth aged 16 and older a chance to choose their legal families.The initiative is designed to address the challenges faced by foster youth who age out of the system without establishing lasting family connections.The SOUL Family program introduces an unusual option that goes beyond traditional pathways like reintegration with biological parents, adoption or guardianship.
Kids who age out of foster care face a heightened risk of homelessness, unemployment, drug and drinking problems or stubborn mental health issues.
They leave the system with few close, personal connections. But Kansas is preparing for a drastic shift that would give them more say in their lives.
The state could be the first in the country to let older foster youth pick their families. A bill in the Legislature is proposing to add this new option, and it’s had broad bipartisan support in its short legislative journey.
Kansas does offer support to these kids, but those services can’t replace the close family connections most people inching toward their 20s can fall back on. They tend to feel lost and abandoned.
“I always felt trapped in a circle of transition,” said Nykia Gatson, who was a foster kid. She spoke with lawmakers in a late-January committee meeting. “This transition seemed to never end. The focus was primarily on transitioning, and not really establishing those permanent connections to help me thrive.”
Kansas is trying to change that with a program called SOUL Family, an acronym for Support, Opportunity, Unity and Legal Relationships.
It would let kids 16 and older pick one or more adults to be their SOUL Family. Simply put, the appointed person takes responsibility for the child with fewer legal requirements than adoption. That child’s days bouncing from foster home to foster home come to an end.
In one case, foster care agency KVC Kansas said it had a child who was close to aging out. She wanted to live with her older sister but didn’t like the idea of being adopted because that would change the relationship too much. That child risked aging out of care without “legal, lasting family that SOUL Family would guarantee.”
Foster care is currently designed around judges, social workers and lawyers making the decisions on what’s best for a child. The proposal would flip the decision-making process around. Kids would get to pick their family, although that choice would still need court approval.
Foster kids move from one person’s home to another until one person — often a stranger — decides they want to keep them. Sometimes their biological parents complete their case goals and the kids get to go back home. Either way, these kids are usually not picking where they end up.
“So many of the young people felt like things were completely out of their control,” said Morgan Rothenberger, communications director for Children’s Alliance of Kansas. “They had no option to give their opinion on what they wanted to happen in their lives.”
The state does use specialized lawyers to be the voice for children. One common complaint about these attorneys is that they’re so busy they don’t spend enough time to get to know the children.
Those lawyers also don’t have to do what the child wants. They do things in the best interest of the child. That might mean recommending a different family for that child to live with. The system makes sense when children are younger and don’t have the maturity to make wise choices.
Older teenagers find themselves frustrated about having so little say in their lives. Gatson, who spoke to lawmakers recently, ended up homeless multiple times when she aged out of foster care.
“Someone should have been there, ultimately, to support me when I aged out of care,” Gatson said. “But there was no plan in place.”
She said SOUL Family helps kids in ways the current system cannot.
Currently, a child leaves the foster care system in one of four ways: joining their biological parents, adoption, guardianship or aging out of foster care.
All those possibilities leave kids with less say in their future than under the SOUL proposal. Some of those options also mean terminating parental rights, something that doesn’t have to be done under the new program.
The proposed permanency option would keep kids with their communities and their culture and would lead to better outcomes, Gatson told lawmakers.
“Young people shouldn’t be distant from their families, as this often leads to a sense of being forgotten,” she said.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon