Josh Kelchner did everything he could to keep his family together. But it almost wasn’t enough.
The oldest of four children, Josh and his younger siblings first came to the attention of Tennessee child protective services when he was 14 years old. Suffering from drug and alcohol addiction, their mother had been neglecting the children for some time. But it wasn’t until a neighbor spotted Josh’s baby sister playing on the swing set in her backyard, alone and unsupervised, that child protective services launched an investigation and the children were placed in foster care.
Months later, Josh’s mother convinced a judge that she was able to care for her children and regained custody of them. But the reality of the situation was troubling. Their mother’s focus was still on drugs and alcohol, and again the responsibility of caring for his younger sisters and brother fell to Josh.
“I was very single-minded in trying to keep my sisters and brother together. Even though I was still a kid myself, I was the one who raised them, and did everything I could not to lose them,” Josh says.
Josh succeeded for a while, until their mother moved the family to Florida. This was a violation of her probation, and she was arrested. Their mother went to jail and the children moved in with a family friend for nearly two years before formally re-entering foster care and being placed in three different homes. Soon after, a volunteer guardian ad litem* was appointed to represent the children.
As Josh describes it today, it was the volunteer, John, who ensured that the family was not destroyed.
“Because of John, we were able to stay in touch even though we were living with different families and had different social workers. He provided stability,” says Josh.
John made sure that Josh was able to maintain his role as a leader in their family.
“I wanted to keep my family close, in my arms every day. Realizing that I could not do that was really hard. But John gave me the next best thing. He made sure my input was included when decisions were made about the kids—including having a say in the families that eventually adopted them.”
Josh aged out of foster care when he was 18 and set his sights on an education and career that would enable him to have children of his own one day. In August, he graduated from West Point as a lieutenant. He is getting ready to head to Texas to begin five years of active duty.
Josh acknowledges the role that his volunteer advocate played in focusing his natural drive and ambition.
“John taught me how to use my head, how to think about the future. Without John I would be an angry person, probably still fighting for some control over my family’s life. John helped me become the person I am today.”
*In some states, including Florida, CASA programs are referred to as volunteer guardian ad litem programs.