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Kansas is taking a nationally unprecedented move to let foster teens pick their families

The sign outside the Kansas Department for Children and Families offices
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
The state is touting "unprecedented change" to foster care in Kansas.

The state will help older foster youth who are aging out of care find families that will last beyond foster care.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas will be the first state to let foster children pick their foster parents. The goal of the one-of-a-kind change aims to let older foster children create strong connections that could help them as they age out of the state’s care.

Foster children can find permanent homes either through adoption, being reunited with family or guardianship, but this new option gives foster youth more say.

Foster children age 16 and older would be able to pick up to two adults to serve as their legal, permanent family. Those people could include caregivers or people close to the child.

“It would be an unprecedented change,” said Scott Henricks, director of permanency at the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “It would be a change of direction on really how the system works.”

It wouldn't cut ties with children’s biological parents unlike other placement options, Henricks said.

It’s designed to connect youth with a strong support system that’ll help them from teenage years to early adulthood. It also recognizes that family is not just about who you’re related to, Henricks said.

An infograph explaining that SOUL lets children pick their parents and build a small support group to help them when they age out of foster care.
Annie E. Casey Foundation

DCF couldn’t yet say how people will be eligible to become these guardians.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates 20,000 people age out of foster care each year without a permanent family supporting them, and those children need help finding stable housing, getting a job or finishing college.

“Just imagine if you or I didn't have anyone at that age,” Henricks said. “We all need those supports. We all need some connections and this would legally recognize that.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation selected Kansas as the first state because of its “active and robust Kansas Youth Advisory Council” and commitment to expanding placement options for older children.

Patricia Duh, a permanency consultant for SOUL Family, said in a blog post announcing the partnership that some children’s needs just aren’t met with the current options.

Duh was responsible for her basic needs once her time in extended foster care ran out, and she said having something like SOUL would have made it easier to become self-sufficient.

“There is no one shoe, one size, that fits all youth when they age out," Duh said. "We have to begin to develop other options."

It isn’t clear when the new option could start because details about it still need to be figured out. State law also needs to be updated to reflect the new placement option. The state Legislature is still technically in session, but any bills on the topic would likely wait until the 2023 session to be considered.

Henricks is excited by the change because he said too many children are aging out of Kansas foster care without a support system to help them succeed as adults. In March, 583 children are about to age out of care with none of the other placement options available.

Letting a person pick their foster parent lets them make an important choice that could impact their lives for years.

“That could really change the trajectory of a young person's life,” Henricks said. “But more so, it will legally recognize their own voice.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.
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