Something many people have asked me is "How does one become a mental health advocate?" I don't believe there's a magical recipe, it sort of just happened for me. While I can't answer when and how it happened I can tell you where it happened. When I was nine years old I was made a Crown Ward of the Children's Aid Society. Many of you are probably more familiar with the term 'Ward of the State' which means exactly the same thing.
I was born to a mom with mental illness who was unable to care for herself, which made caring for a child even more challenging for her. My grandmother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when I was five raised me; my mom continued raising me while caring for my ailing grandmother. Eventually it became too much for my mom and when I was nine it was decided that I could receive better care and a better quality of life if custody of me was handed over to the Children's Aid Society. It is a decision that has changed my life forever.
Today is Youth In Care Day and is officially recognized by the Province of Ontario. According to the province there are over 17,000 living in care with over 8,000 of them being Crown Wards. From 1999 to 2008 I was one of them. Youth in care walk amongst us. They are your neighbours, they are my neighbours. They could be your child's friends; they may even be your paper boy or paper girl. It is likely you'll never know the province is their parent unless they tell you.
During my nine years as a youth in care I lived in 16 different foster homes and group homes in Toronto, Brampton, Ajax, Barrie and Wasaga Beach. I easily had over 100 staff and foster parents responsible for my care at one point or another. I also lived with just as many young people, sometimes sharing a room for one night with a fellow youth that I'd only meet once and never see again.
Being a youth in care can be lonesome. While I was surrounded by people dedicated to taking care of me it was beyond challenging to form relationships with people when you're constantly moving from home to home. Staff retire or move on to other jobs and youth also move to other homes or even back with their families.
While relationships were my biggest challenge it was also my biggest asset. My life experience is unique to say the least and I came into the system with a lot of baggage for a young person. I sometimes felt like navigating the child welfare as a child was all about survival. I had to learn how to survive moving from community to community and what staff and foster parents could be trusted to form bonds and relationships with. A child shouldn't have to learn how to survive and I don't think I learned per se; nobody taught me. I survived based on previous knowledge and on instinct.
Every youth in care is different and my experience is just one of thousands. However, whether you live in Ontario or not, I urge you to take a moment today -- heck take a moment everyday -- to reflect on the tens of thousands of children who call their province their parent.