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Kansas will be the first state to let foster teens pick a family without losing foster care benefits

Alexandria Ware poses with Jim Whittley, who she calls her "papa."
Courtesy of Alexandria Ware
Alexandria Ware poses with Jim Whittley, who she calls her "papa."

Older foster children in Kansas who face aging out of care will soon be able to choose their own families. In the past, they had to sometimes choose between being adopted or keeping important foster care benefits like free college tuition.

WICHITA, Kansas — When Alexandria Ware was a teenager, she would often spend time outside with Jim Whittley, who she affectionately called her “papa.”

She would join him while he worked outside, and he would sometimes take her to Riverside Park in central Wichita for picnics. They had a special bond, and that’s important for someone like Ware whose life was in flux during her childhood.

“People don't understand how important it is,” Ware said, “to have one person that shows up for you, no matter what. Even when you don't feel lovable.”

But Whittley, who died in 2022, was not legally Ware’s grandfather. He was part of the family who took Ware in when she was in the state’s care as a foster child. The Wellington-based family could have adopted Ware, but the Kansas foster care system left her with a hard decision.

Ware, who is now 31, said she had to choose between a permanent family or keeping her federal foster care benefits, including free college tuition. If the Whittley family did adopt her, she may not have been able to afford attending Kansas State University.

Ware and the Whittleys chose college, and she ended up as one of many Kansas foster children who aged out of the state’s care at 18 before finding a permanent legal home.

If Ware had a better choice, she said she would have picked Jim Whittley to be her permanent custodian. She said he was always there for her during the highs and the lows of her teen years.

“He accepted everyone with love,” Ware said. “And made sure people knew they were supported.”

Thanks to Ware and other former foster children, Kansas teens in foster care may not be forced to make such a hard decision.

A new Kansas law — known as SOUL Family Legal Permanency — will soon allow foster children between 16 and 18 to choose a relative or a close friend to serve as their permanent custodian while also keeping their foster care benefits.

Prior to the new option, older foster children could be placed with foster parents or put up for adoption. They could also be reunified with their birth parents. But many children end up bouncing around homes and aging out of care without being adopted when they turn 18.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signs the SOUL Family Permanency bill into law during a ceremonial event.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signs the SOUL Family Permanency bill into law during a ceremonial event. She praised the former foster children for crafting the new law.

Some former foster children in Kansas said that the state’s few options for finding a permanent home led to dangerous situations, like homelessness.

But by listening to their lived experience and suggestions for change, Kansas officials hope the new legal permanency option provides teen foster children with lifelong connections and a safety net.

Need for change

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on improving the lives of kids, created the concept by bringing together foster children from across the country to share their experiences.

That group found that the standard permanency options for foster children — adoption, legal guardianship and reunification with birth parents — helps many children across the country, but let a significant amount slip through the cracks.

The organization reports about 50% of children in the U.S. foster care system, about 20,000 children each year, age out of care without a permanent living arrangement.

The foundation then pitched the concept to Kansas because of the state’s higher rate of children aging out of foster care. Republican Representative Susan Concannon told lawmakers on the House floor that about 60% of Kansas foster children age out.

“So because Kansas’ number is exceptionally high,” Concannon said, “they chose to work with Kansas on this legislation.”

Some of the former foster children in Kansas who helped craft the SOUL Family Permanency bill pose with the bill that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed into law.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Some of the former foster children in Kansas who helped craft the SOUL Family Permanency bill pose with the bill that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed into law. The group shared their experiences to come up with the new option that the state hopes provides more support for foster children who are expected to age out of care without a permanent home.

In Kansas, former foster children worked with legal experts and advocacy groups for about two years to adapt the concept for the state. They landed on the law that establishes the SOUL Family permanency option, which allows the older foster teens to pick their families. An example would be a teen picking a relative like an aunt or uncle, or a close family friend, like a teacher or pastor, to be the legal custodian.

The custodian is appointed through a court order that the teen agrees to. They will have all the parental rights for the child, except for the right to put the child up for adoption or the obligation to pay for child support.

The arrangement provides a parental figure for the teen while also allowing them to continue receiving their federal and state foster care benefits and funding. It also allows the teen to keep a legal connection to their birth parents, which would otherwise be terminated when a child is adopted.

Advocacy groups that supported the idea said it provides older foster children a chance to establish a life-long family relationship with an adult, which is a crucial safety net for children and young adults.

Rachel Marsh, CEO for the Children’s Alliance of Kansas, said too many Kansas teens are aging out of foster care without those kinds of connections. The state and the former foster children who crafted the bill needed to be creative to find a new solution that addresses the gaps in the system.

“The best indicator of long term success as an adult,” Marsh said, “is having a positive adult connection when you're a young person.”

No safety net

Aging out of care leads to dire consequences for foster children and that’s been borne out by those who helped craft the new law.

Marquan Teetz of Wichita is one of several former foster children who helped craft it. When he was 16, Teetz refused to be placed in another foster home and left the state’s care before he was an adult. That separated him from his younger brother, who was still too young to leave the state’s care.

Teetz, who is now 22, said if he had the SOUL Family option, he would have picked his great aunt to be his legal custodian. And that would have allowed him to stay connected to his brother as well.

Instead, he wound up homeless for about two years.

“(I was) stuck in survival mode,” Teetz said. “Instead of having back up, support, (you have to) just survive on your own every day.”

Marquan Teetz poses with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly after she signed the SOUL Family Permanency bill into law.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Marquan Teetz, right, wound up homeless for about two years after he aged out of the Kansas foster care system. Studies show foster children who age out of care are more likely to end up homeless.

Patrick Fowler is a public health researcher for Washington University in St. Louis. He focuses on preventing homelessness and how it affects children and families. Fowler said studies show a disproportionate amount of foster kids who age out of care face homelessness when they leave the foster care system.

He said young adults make mistakes and then lean on their families to survive them. Like moving home with their parents when they lose a job. But those who age out of foster care do not have that support.

“It’s a bad situation,” Fowler said. “They experience violence, sexual trauma and are more likely to get involved in substance abuses.”

Some foster children can face those dangers before they are even adults. Kristen Nicole Powell, another former foster child in Kansas who helped craft the law, said she entered foster care when she was 13 after running away from her father. She said running away was a coping mechanism for her.

Amid her times running away, Powell eventually fell in with the wrong crowd and was sex trafficked. She was arrested and charged with prostitution as a minor. Powell said she felt trapped by the judicial and foster care system.

When she turned 16, her foster care case was terminated. She said she was then “the juvenile justice system’s problem.”

Powell, who is now 26 and lives in Oregon, said she may have avoided all of that trouble if she had a positive adult relationship in her childhood. Coincidentally, she met one while she was in juvenile detention.

Powell said Carol Gorges, a chaplain for the juvenile detention center in Wichita, showed her unconditional love, no matter what she did. Powell said she would have picked Gorges to be a custodian, but she didn’t have that option.

“Because of the way the system was set up,” Powell said, “the only time that I actually really had contact with her was when I was in juvenile detention.”

Better outcomes

The new law will go into effect on July 1. State officials believe foster children could begin taking the legal steps to establishing those connections almost immediately. As of December, more than 500 Kansas foster children older than 16 were expected to age out of care without a permanent home.

Tanya Keys, deputy secretary for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, said the new option may decrease that number and lead to Kansas kids spending less time in foster care.

“We hope with this that we have a greater percentage of older youth,” Keys said, “who are leaving foster care with a legal, permanent connection.”

Republican Sen. Beverly Gossage films speeches on her phone during a ceremonial bill signing.
Dylan Lysen
Kansas News Service
Republican Sen. Beverly Gossage films speeches on her phone during a ceremonial bill signing. Gossage led the passage of the bill in the Kansas Senate.

The law received broad bipartisan support. When Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed the bill into law during a ceremonial event, she celebrated with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

And Republican Sen. Beverly Gossage, who pushed for the bill in the Kansas Senate, filmed speeches from the former foster children on her phone like a proud grandparent.

Kelly said she was thankful for the work of the foster children who developed the new law and that the Annie E. Casey Foundation picked Kansas to be the first to enact it.

“Kansas is leading the way in bringing about positive changes to the foster care system,” Kelly said, “and we have the opportunity to change lives in a tremendous way.”

Dylan Lysen reports on social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Threads @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) 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.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.
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