TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly signed legislation making Kansas the first state to implement a program enabling children 16 years or older in the foster care system to select an adult to form a legal permanent relationship with rather than follow the standard pathways of family reunification, adoption or appointment of a guardian.

Kansas youth at least 16 years of age and preparing to age out of the foster care system could choose to be part of the Support, Opportunity, Unity and Legal (SOUL) program giving them authority to select one or more adults they trust to help guide them into adulthood. This legal association would have most, but not all, features of a parent-child bond. SOUL would extend state funding and services to help someone exiting foster care to better appreciate how to live independently while tethered to assistance to help secure employment, complete college and find safe housing.

“With this fourth pathway, we can ensure more children have a say in the environment they grow up in and the adults who are raising them. This legislation is transformational for Kansas kids,” the Democratic governor said.

Kansas Department for Children and Families secretary Laura Howard said young people in care of the state agency could anchor themselves to a circle of nurturing, caring adults at a critical point in their lives. SOUL benefitted from input from people who experienced foster care, she said.

“It is a culmination of more than two years of collaborative efforts that placed those with lived experiences at the center of the discussion in their efforts to ensure that youth coming after them had options beyond permanent custodian or another planned permanent living arrangement,” Howard said.

Under the model supported by the  Annie E. Casey Foundation and written into House Bill 2536 with bipartisan support of the Kansas Legislature, SOUL enrollees wouldn’t be required to terminate legal relationships with birth parents or siblings. Nor would it relieve biological parents of certain obligations, such as payment of child support.

The bill signed Monday by Kelly would require a district court to make certain a SOUL child had access to the maximum allowable benefits available under other legal permanency options. When considering a SOUL partnership, the court would give consideration to appointing a relative or an individual with whom the child had close emotional ties. The statute would terminate DCF’s custody of the child once the SOUL relationship was affirmed by the court.

Kristen Nicole Powell, who shared with legislators personal insights into the life of someone placed in foster care, offered recommendations for shaping the Kansas SOUL initiative. She said it was important young people had relationships with adults willing to offer care and love even when the recipient didn’t fully appreciate the meaning of those gifts. At 18, she said, she had no family but did have a bond with mentors.

“This kept me from experiencing things like prison, homelessness, drugs, drug addiction, and even death,” she said. “SOUL Family gives people autonomy to decide who they want to have in their life and keep those relationships that help them heal and get out of the system.”

The governor also signed House Bill 2549 that altered the list of people required to be given notice of a hearing on a petition for adoption of a child. A separate piece of legislation, House Bill 2675, created a legal framework so nonparents acting as a child’s caregiver could petition the court for visitation rights to be with the child.

Meanwhile, Kelly signed into law House Bill 2665 to increase criminal sanctions for a motorist who left the scene of an accident when the incident resulted in a fatality or the driver of the vehicle reasonably could have known the accident produced an injury or a death.