Former Foster Youth is a Rare Success Story
When Warren was 16, his father kicked him out. The Virginia youth had lost his mom when he was just 10, and his dad fell apart.
Warren says his dad never picked himself back up, and started abusing pain medication. Adding to Warren’s stress was his own confusion: he was born as a girl but identifies as a boy. The year before he had to leave home, he had started wearing boys’ clothing and then cut his hair really short.
“I left my dad on Dec. 10, 2013,” Warren says. “He was abusive, and it got progressively worse over time. I got pretty afraid so I talked to my high school counselor. She called Child Protective Services.”
For many children, being in foster care – especially if they stay in for years until they become independent at 21 – can lead to long-term consequences. Children who have been in foster care are less likely to earn a high school diploma or GED, or attend college; and more likely to get pregnant early or enter the criminal justice system, studies show.
Yet Warren stands out as a shining exception: He’s an example of what can happen when one of our dedicated social workers meets a resilient young person who’s determined to make it. Warren has his own apartment and two part-time jobs, one of them as an administrative assistant and recruiter at a tech firm. He’s taken classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“He’s among the few of the few,” says Mindy Kuhl, who’s been his social worker with the ongoing child protection unit in St. Louis County for 2 ½ years now. “There’s a lot of stuff going on, crises that gets all of workers’ attention. That’s where people like Warren, young adults on the verge of becoming independent, fall to the backburner. It’s not necessarily urgent. Yet at the same time, I want him to be successful. Warren is really resilient, but not everyone is like him.”
Kuhl and Warren are both firmly convinced he’ll make it.
The future didn’t seem so promising when Warren first left home three years ago.
“I have a mild form of autism, of Asperger Syndrome,” he says. “I would have almost uncontrollable mood swings, fits of anger. That’s why I left my first foster home. One day I just snapped. It wasn’t that my first foster mom was a bad person; she was a nice lady. I just didn’t really connect with her. My anger issues were getting to be too much.”
Warren got kicked out of foster care on prom night. “I had to help him load all his stuff into my SUV and bring him to a shelter,” says Kuhl, who’s an AFSCME Local 66 member. “I was sad for him.”
But a friend was able to pick Warren up from the shelter in his tux, and Kuhl went to watch his grand march so someone would be there for him. She attended his high school graduation, too.
Warren started therapy and medication. He rarely has mood swings now, and when he does, he can control them.
Kuhl helped him find a new foster home, one that stuck.
“I still talk to my foster parents. I still keep a relationship with them even after I moved out for college,” Warren says. “I guess you would call that a forever family type of thing. I’ve visited them multiple times since moving out, spent Thanksgivings and New Years with them.”
Coming out made a huge difference for Warren. Growing up, he’d never heard the term “transgender.”
“When I learned what the word meant, it clicked,” he says. “That’s what I’d been feeling. I hated having long hair, never liked girly things or clothes. Since I looked more like a boy, I heard whispers multiple times in public, Is that a boy or girl?”
Warren came out as transgender in April of 2015. “I’ve been a lot happier than I’ve ever been,” he says.
Kuhl supported him through all the change and upheaval, and still does. It’s the kind of committed work our child protection workers do every day, says AFSCME Local 66 president Dennis Frazier.
Warren says his first year in college was harder than he expected – he enjoyed his freedom a bit too much. He decided to take some time off to gain perspective, life experience and save money.
Then he got stuck in a bad roommate situation last fall. One of his roommates threatened to hit him and throw out his stuff. It was Kuhl who came to get him and return him safely to his foster parents. When his foster parents had to go on a trip, she found him another temporary foster home.
Kuhl says she gravitates to cases with teens like Warren.
“We just kind of connected, we’ve had a lot of bonding moments,” Kuhl says. “I like to take the teenagers. They’re a lot of work. I’ve always been interested in that population. I’m only 24 so they relate to me pretty well.
“I was always frustrated growing up as a teen,” she adds. “I felt people didn’t take me seriously. I thought, when I’m an adult, I want to remember that feeling so that I make sure when I’m working with a teen, I give them the opportunity to succeed and build them up.”
Warren describes his experience with foster care and Child Protective Services as “fairly positive.”
“Mindy has told me many times I’m her best case and her best client, one of the best foster teen cases in the entire county. She tells me, ‘You have a really good head on your shoulders.’ It’s been nice to have that kind of praise. I’m kind of proud to get things going.”
Frazier, who’s a child protection social worker himself, was moved to see how far Warren had come: “For a person like Warren to live in northern Minnesota, to be a person of color and go through the changes he did is amazing.
“I think a huge part of that is Mindy being the kind of human being and worker she is,” Frazier says. “Mindy is a bright creative person who sees the deficits in our system and takes them on in a tactful way. That’s her hallmark. She’s always looking for a way to make things better and she hangs in there with tough situations. She really gives it her all.”
Like many of our child protection workers, Frazier says, “Mindy sees the value of getting these folks to a better place, to have a chance at the kind of life we all want, making a living and having a home.”