Foster care legislation passes

Former foster kids relived trauma, fought for new program and compelled Kansas lawmakers to act.

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May 15, 2024 - 4:07 PM

Carol Roberts says the SOUL Family bill signifies a new era in which the voices of young adults “are not only heard but valued and respected.” Photo by SHERMAN SMITH/KANSAS REFLECTOR

TOPEKA — Two years ago, Alexandria Ware and other alumni of the Kansas foster care system met with state officials and contractors to present a novel plan for providing stability to foster kids as they age out of the system and enter adulthood.

“We were in a room where all of us did not like what we were being told at all,” Ware recalled Tuesday.

But with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and through the power of personal stories, the former foster kids prevailed. On Tuesday, they celebrated the passage of legislation that will allow foster kids who are 16 or older to choose to stay with a family member or close friend — as opposed to bouncing from one temporary house to another or sleeping in office space while waiting for adoption.

“I’m not normally a crier, but this is the biggest impact that all of us could leave,” Ware said during the celebration at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, where she spoke alongside peers who helped develop the program, as well state officials and legislators.

“We did this,” Ware said. “We worked together. We had to relive our trauma. We had to sit in rooms and be uncomfortable. But this has shown the progress of Kansas being able to listen to young people.”

SOUL stands for Support, Opportunity, Unity and Legal Relationships. Entry into the program would require approval from the foster child, the child’s parent, the chosen caretaker and a judge.

The caretaker would receive financial support, and the teenager would continue to receive state services like other foster kids.

Instead of aging out of the system when they turn 18, those enrolled in the SOUL Family program would receive support for health care, education and housing. Relationships. Entry into the program would require approval from the foster child, the child’s parent, the chosen caretaker and a judge.

Carol Roberts, one of the former foster kids who helped develop the program, said House Bill 2536 signifies a shift toward empowering young people to have a voice in decisions that will shape their lives. Traditionally, she said, their lives are controlled by judges and social workers.

“While I wish this had been a reality when I was in the system, I found solace in knowing that the present and future youth will no longer feel powerless,” Roberts said. “They will have a chance to express their needs, share the importance of connections, and navigate their journey with less trauma and uncertainty.”

The bill won unanimous support in the Senate, where it passed 40-0 after clearing the House by a 112-8 margin.

The rare bipartisan support for legislation dealing with social services followed deeply personal testimony from former foster kids. Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who serves as chairwoman of the House Child Welfare and Foster Care Committee, said the “narratives of resilience and yearning” compelled lawmakers to act with purpose and urgency.

“It’s one thing for us to sit in a committee room and talk about what’s in the best interest of the child, and we we create laws,” Concannon said. “But to have the people who are living it come and talk to us — some of it is hard to hear. Some of it shows a lack of common sense: What are we doing here?”

The program will attempt to alter the lives of a segment of foster kids who, because of their age, are more vulnerable to the instability that has plagued the Kansas foster care system for much of the past decade.

Under Gov. Laura Kelly, the number of kids in foster care has declined by 20%, and the Legislature has worked to provide additional resources for the child welfare system. The Kelly administration also settled a lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed that requires the state to improve aspects of the foster care system, although the state has struggled to make sufficient progress.

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