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Older teens in foster care can now choose their own families in Kansas

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

About 370,000 children in the U.S. are in foster care, according to federal data. Those who are not reunited with their birth parents or adopted or placed in guardianship face aging out of the system at 18 and losing the safety net of a permanent home. A new law in Kansas aims to change that by offering older teens a chance to choose their own custodians. Dylan Lysen of the Kansas New Service reports.

DYLAN LYSEN, BYLINE: When Alexandria Ware was a teenager, she would often visit Riverside Park in Central Wichita to spend time with Jim Whittley, who she called her papa. They weren't legally related, but he was part of the family who took her in when she was in state care as a foster child, and they had a special bond.

ALEXANDRIA WARE: I very much liked being outside. Like, he liked to be outside to, like, work. I liked to be outside to just, like, enjoy the weather, and that was, like, part of our connection.

LYSEN: Ware could have been adopted by the Whittleys, but she would have lost her federal foster care benefits like college tuition. So she and the Whittleys chose to keep their foster care relationship to make sure Ware could afford and attend college. But Ware says if she had a better choice, she would have picked Jim, who has since died, to be her permanent custodian. She says he was always there for her.

WARE: People don't understand how important it is to have one person that shows up for you, no matter what, even when you don't feel loveable.

LYSEN: Data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows roughly 20,000 foster kids in the U.S. age out of foster care each year. That's about half of the older teens in foster care leaving the system without a permanent home. In Kansas, those numbers are a staggering 60%. It can be a dangerous situation says Patrick Fowler, a public health researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. He says 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. Fowler says studies show a disproportionate number of those foster kids face homelessness.

PATRICK FOWLER: It's a bad situation. And so they experience violence. They experience sexual trauma. They are more likely to get involved in substance abuses.

LYSEN: Marquan Teetz of Wichita says he is proof of that. When he was 16, he successfully petitioned for emancipation and left the system early after refusing to be placed in another foster home. He wound up homeless for about two years.

MARQUAN TEETZ: Just stuck in survival mode, instead of have backup support and just surviving on your own every day.

LYSEN: Late last year, Kansas estimated more than 500 older teens in foster care would age out of the system without a permanent home when they turned 18. However, the state hopes those numbers will be lower because of a new state law, thanks to the work of former foster children, state lawmakers and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on improving the lives of kids. And Republican state Representative Susan Concannon says starting July 1, foster children between 16 and 18 years of age can choose a relative or a close friend to serve as their permanent and lifelong custodian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN CONCANNON: To ensure that no older youth in foster care will age out of the system without loving, caring adults.

LYSEN: That's exactly what the now 22-year-old Teetz hopes. He works with older foster children in Kansas.

TEETZ: I'm just excited to see someone I know genuinely take advantage of this.

LYSEN: And the state's governor says the tweak to foster care in Kansas will provide an opportunity for the state to change lives in a tremendous way. For NPR News, I'm Dylan Lysen in Wichita, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI-TEK SONG, "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dylan Lysen