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November 2021Vol. 22, No. 10Introducing SOUL Family, a New Permanency Option

Written by Patricia Duh and Sonia Emerson, Jim Casey Young Fellows with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Aysha E. Schomburg, J.D., associate commissioner, Children's Bureau

This National Adoption Month, we recognize the children and youth waiting to be adopted into loving, stable, and permanent homes, and we acknowledge their voice and input about what they need for their own lives. This year's National Adoption Month theme is "Every Conversation Matters," so I have devoted this space to the voices of Jim Casey Young Fellows and a new permanency option, SOUL Family, that aims to connect waiting youth with caring and supportive adults while preserving key family relationships.


You are graduating-you want someone there. You need advice-you need someone who cares. But what if you have no one? Too often, that's the reality facing older youth in foster care. There are now three permanency options-adoption, guardianship, and reunification. And while APPLA (another planned permanent living arrangement) has its advantages, especially for boosting housing stability, it does not address the critical relationships young people need to thrive. These permanency options may work for many young people, but they are not sufficiently flexible for all. As a result, nearly half of young people age 16 or older-including the 20,000 who age out each year-exit foster care without the loving relationships they need. 

Choosing SOUL Family

In October, we shared preliminary ideas for a new choice-the SOUL Family Permanency Option. It stands for Support, Opportunity, Unity, and Legal Relationships. What does SOUL offer? One of its designers sums it up: "Having a choice in my permanency. Building connections that are important to me and not just the ones others believe are important to me."

SOUL would establish legal relationships between a young person (age 16 or older) and at least one caring adult. It would carry the legal status of a lifelong familial relationship and maintain a young person's legal relationship with their parents, siblings, and kin. It would also encourage other adults to support the young person-by providing education or career guidance, for example. And the young person could still access supports to navigate relationships and meet their well-being needs. 

What brought us here? Three years ago, Jim Casey Young Fellows began sharing painful personal experiences with permanency. A young person might get adopted-which is good. But too often, adoption severs cherished family relationships. If the adoption fails, a young person loses family connections again. If they reenter the system and then age out, they have no family, no supports, and no services. It can feel like being pushed off a cliff over and over again. 

Permanency Matters

In designing SOUL Family, Jim Casey Young Fellows wanted to spotlight what young people actually need-and their needs can be complex because human beings are complex! Fellows want people like you-caseworkers, system leaders, providers, and advocates-to listen to young people, recognize key relationships, and ask youth as soon as they enter the child welfare system: "Who is important to you?" 

Early responses to SOUL Family have been amazing. The following are some of our favorite comments:

  • "Designed by young people for young people. It doesn't get any better than that!"
  • "SOUL Family gives an adult permission to stay connected."
  • "SOUL Family provides all the supportive people a youth needs to pursue the life they desire."
  • "Hearing different stories from [young] panelists was an eye opener for me. It is evident we do need to broaden our definition of family." 

We couldn't agree more. SOUL Family is flexible. It's youth led. It honors a wider array of unique cultures, family structures, and communities. 

Join us in redefining permanency in your community. Introduce a new path to permanency that is flexible, inclusive, and focused on belonging. That's what young people are telling us they need. It's time to listen.