Rising Above the Chaos

By Robert E. Thomas

Robert largeI still remember the chaotic day when my seven siblings and I went into foster care. My mom left to go drinking, and my 2-year-old brother was locked in the house by himself. The rest of us could not get in. Fire trucks and police cars came, officers broke in and we were taken away. I was 6.

Once in foster care, we moved from home to home, each carrying one big black plastic bag with all of our belongings in it. I navigated through about eight different placements, and had to call all of my foster mothers “Mom.” Mom became a weakened term after having so many. Some acted how a mother should and took care of me like I was one of their own, but others treated me differently than their kids. Sometimes, you definitely know when you are a foster.

When I was 14, we moved back in with our biological mother. There was no structure in her home, and all of the sudden I went from being a kid to having to act like a disciplinarian. My siblings went wild, from getting into fights around the neighborhood, to coming in and out as they pleased with no curfew, to getting expelled from school. My mother didn’t really care about re-enrolling them, so I did it. I also pried open the locked refrigerator and freezer to get us food. My role as caretaker resulted in my caseworker giving me an ultimatum – either move in with my biological father or into a group home.

I chose to live with my father, and often went back to my mother’s to straighten out my siblings. But it was short-lived. My father was also addicted to alcohol and was abusive. We got into a big physical altercation. It was the last straw for me – after that, I couch surfed for a while.

Things started to turn around when I went to an after-school program for inner city youth. All I had to do there was learn, and there was food, so I kept going. The program introduced me to the concept of college, and I became consumed with the thought of higher education being the only way out of my situation. I gained a mentor, and he helped me enroll in the Detroit Urban League’s first independent living program. But since it wasn’t funded, I worked three jobs to pay my portion of the rent, and when my roommate couldn’t pay his, the landlord kicked us out. Another mentor told me I could stay with her for the duration of high school. If anyone deserves to be my mom, it is her. She saw a struggling kid trying to survive, and reached out. She had a few rules: I had to go to school; I had to attend church; and I had to leave the state for college – to move away from bad influences.

College wasn’t always easy. I remember sneaking in and out of the dorms illegally, because they were closed during the holidays and I had nowhere else to go. And even though I prided myself on being the first in my family to attend college, there was not enough pride in the world to overcome my feelings of abandonment and loneliness. Although I was crowded with emotions during these times, I had to press on and complete what many said was statistically unachievable.

I have come a long way since my time in foster care. I have a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial technology. I am a former engineer within the nuclear defense industry, having worked as a lead engineer at Northrop Grumman Newport News, engineering and designing the nation’s premier nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear powered submarines. I eventually left the industry to work as a patent-examining engineer for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. I recently earned a law degree from Wayne State University Law School, and now endeavor to practice law as a patent attorney, as well as advocate in the areas of family law and juvenile justice.

I always wanted to know where I came from, so I sought out information about my extended family. I discovered relatives who hadn’t known about our situation. Meeting them was the reunion I was waiting for. Now when I need help, I reach out to people like my great uncle, great aunt, extended cousins, cousins who are also fraternity brothers, engineers and lawyers. I didn’t grow up with them, but they embrace and love me nonetheless.

I now understand that some people are not meant to parent. They just can’t seem to get that part of their lives together. Although reunification did not work out for the best for my siblings and me, I was never bitter. I forgave my parents, but I didn’t forget the situation. And I promised myself to never put any kid in the same position. I have become a single dad – not by circumstance, but by choice. I take care of my nephew, helping him with his school work and assisting him in his growth into manhood. He is 16, and I’m his uncle/dad, if you will – a sacrifice I would make any day.

Now I share my story with foster youth to inspire them to focus on their education. I am the founder of the Michigan chapter of the Foster Care Alumni Association of America and a part of several other foster care related advocacy groups. To those still in care, I say, you can do something different. You don’t have to settle for being one of the 2 to 3 percent of foster kids who actually graduate from college. Seek support, find your mentors and you’ll go far.

Published on May 23, 2015 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.