Becoming My Own Advocate

How aging-out of the foster care system led me to build my own family.

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I was first placed in foster care at the age of 6 after my mom gave me away to a friend who abused me physically, mentally and emotionally. That was the beginning of a painfully long relationship with the foster care system, marked by 11 different placements, nine different schools and countless attempts to find a true "home." My story is not unlike those told by many tens of thousands of foster youths every year.

I was shuffled between kinship care (placement with relatives), illegal guardianships and foster homes. I craved the supportive, nurturing care of a parent—that simple relationship I once had with my mother, and one that can be achieved only by the stable presence of an adult in a child's life. Each and every day I longed for it. When I didn't get what I wanted and needed, I acted out—in school and at home—all in an effort to achieve a permanent connection with someone. Through my outlandish behavior, I attracted the attention and concern of my teachers, who never gave up on me. It was through their love and support that I survived my mother's death from a brain aneurism. Suddenly, here I was, a fifth-grader who was forced to grapple with the realization that I would never see my mother again. That was the year I changed from a boy to a man.

Everyone goes through life-altering moments. As a foster child, you have many more than any young person should. After my mother's death, I remember my aunt telling me, "A child is not responsible for where they're born, who they're born to and the situation into which they're born." Hearing these words, I chose, then and there, to refuse to let my life trail to dust. I chose to set goals for my life and turn other people's doubt into fuel for success.

I aged out of foster care at 18, during my first year of college in Portland, Ore. Aging out of the system brought my mind to new places. As a child, I'd ask myself why my mom left me, why my brothers and sisters didn't want to speak to me, why we didn't know each other. As a child, I didn't expect to find the answers. But in college, as my mind was expanding and learning how to analyze situations in a whole new light, I quickly became plagued by these questions and an overwhelming depression.

The concept of permanency is different for each child who grows up in foster care. Once it became clear to me that I would not find permanency through adoption papers, I became determined to find it through my own strength and perseverance. I reached out to friends and to the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters I accumulated in foster care to build a lifelong family network for myself. Through learning about the different ways I could achieve permanency and through building my permanency team, I overcame my depression and reclaimed my future.

For my brothers and sisters in foster care, I urge you to push yourself to reach the unreachable, stand up for what you need and advocate changing the lives of others in care. Know that you are not alone. We can work together to improve the system, one step at a time.

My story is full of twists and turns, and it vacillates from running on empty to full speed ahead. But my story, my life, is my greatest strength, and it is what drives me to advocate for myself and all of my brothers and sisters who are still in foster care.

Joshua Griggs, 20, penned this piece after attending the National Convening on Youth Permanence in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation/Casey Family Services and Casey Family Programs. Joshua joined nearly 600 foster care youths, alumni and families, child welfare professionals and permanency advocates to kick off National Foster Care Month. He attends Portland State University, majoring in social work with a minor in communications, and serves on the Oregon Youth Advisory Council for foster care.

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