Foster care advocates say ‘innovative new option’ will help Kansas kids as they age out of system
Tara Wallace and John Wilson, supporters of child welfare system reform, discuss the SOUL idea in an Oct. 23, 2023, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A family can be a child and their coach. Or a child and their teacher. Or a child, their teacher and their aunt, under an initiative that revolutionizes the definition of family for young adults aging out of foster care.
Trauma therapist Tara Wallace, child welfare advocate Alexandria Ware and John Wilson, president of Kansas Action for Children, discussed alternatives to the current child foster care system for the Kansas Reflector podcast.
“How can we work with these young people to give them a different option?” Ware said. “How can we make sure that their voices are at the table? Who do they go to when they have issues? Who do they call on? Who is their emotional sounding board? Who do they have an emotional tie with?”
Ware, along with the other two advocates, has promoted SOUL as one answer to these questions.
SOUL, which stands for Support, Opportunity, Unity and Legal Relationships, would provide an alternative new option for Kansas foster youths who are close to aging out of the system.
The state currently has three options: adoption, guardianship or reunification with the youth’s birth family. June data from DCF showed 537 Kansas youths preparing to age out of foster care who didn’t fit into any of these options.
Under the initiative, youths ages 16 and older could choose one or more primary caregivers and additional caring adults to be their SOUL family, with these adults committing to forming a legally recognized, lifelong relationship with the youths.
“This is an innovative new option for youth already in the system,” Wilson said. “And I also don’t want to ignore the fact that there is still plenty of work to be done to help avoid the need for this option in the first place.”
Ideally, this option would provide older youths with a circle of caring adults while still keeping their legal ties with their birth parents and siblings. In an often-criticized child welfare system — in which foster children continue to sleep in offices and experience multiple moves — the initiative could establish more stability.
“We’re not just looking at safety,” Ware said. “We’re looking at what is their well-being, what are they saying is going to help them thrive, to become the best adult that they can be.”
SOUL was pioneered by youth leaders with foster care experience. The innovators were fellows with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has since worked to promote the initiative.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen youth in the child welfare system excited about something, because this is not just people who don’t know them, people who have never seen them making decisions about their lives,” Wallace said. “This is their voice. They don’t even have a seat at this table. They built this table. And it’s long overdue.”
The Department for Children and Families partnered with Kansas young leaders, advocates and providers to advance the initiative over the past two years, after DCF officials attended several conversations with the Annie E. Casey Foundation on SOUL in 2021.
DCF Secretary Laura Howard gave lawmakers on a child welfare committee an overview of SOUL during an Oct. 4 meeting.
“We’re really excited about this,” Howard said.
Committee lawmakers recommended SOUL for consideration in the upcoming legislative session.
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