21-year-old Steps Up for His Siblings

by Jonathan Rockoff •

When Tyson Robertson was growing up, he and his mother spent time in a homeless shelter while she struggled with substance use disorder. Soon after he was out on his own, it became clear his mother was heading down the same path. Only this time, it would be his siblings, Tyshawn and Tyanna, who’d be staying in a homeless shelter with her.

Tyson decided he couldn’t let that happen. Although the county department of social services (DSS) had some concerns—he was only 21 and just getting started financially—he was able to take Tyshawn and Tyanna in.

Suddenly there he was, a 21-year-old raising two 9-year-olds.

A Big Change
Suddenly there he was, a 21-year-old raising two 9-year-olds. He had always been somewhat of a father figure to them, but now he was the sole parental figure.

Tyson smiled when I asked him about that transition. “They’ve always been good kids,” he said. “They never gave me any real trouble.”

The hard part was making ends meet. Tyson made many sacrifices and at first received only minimal financial assistance. Although he laughs about it now, he says one of the toughest parts for him was having to sell his video game collection.

Tyson says things got a lot better when he became licensed as a foster parent. Once he was licensed, he received training, adequate financial support, and assistance in any other way he needed to provide a safe and loving home. Eventually he was able to adopt Tyshawn and Tyanna.

Eight years later, when Tyson was 29, things were fine. He was working and parenting, and Tyshawn and Tyanna were doing well at home and in school.

The same was not true for their brother, Trayvon. At age 9, Trayvon was bouncing from one foster home to another. The bright spot was that he spent every other weekend with Tyson, Tyshawn, and Tyanna. But at the end of the weekend he would always cry about having to leave his siblings.

At that point, Tyson decided he wanted to adopt Trayvon. As before, DSS was not wholly on board with this idea. After all, Trayvon was still in his 20’s and raising two 17-year-olds. But Tyson fought for his brother and won. In the end he was able to adopt Trayvon, too.

Tyson is incredibly strong, but he admits he couldn’t have done it alone. His aunt was a huge support, always offering encouraging words and assistance. He also made a point to tell me Tyshawn and Tyanna were and remain a huge help with Trayvon.

Looking Forward
This story isn’t over, but it has all the components of a happy ending. Tyson has a great career managing data for a large computer company. His relationship with his mother has been strained in the past, but it’s improving.

Tyshawn and Tyanna are 21, the same age Tyson was when he made his historic decision. Tyshawn has a job and works hard. He doesn’t hesitate to take care of Trayvon when Tyson has to work late or travel. Tyanna is working her way through college and is set to graduate from East Carolina University in 2020. Trayvon is a teenager, and Tyson says it’s going about as well as raising a teenager can go.

Oh, and don’t worry. Tyson got his video games back. He told me proudly they are an important part of his self-care, and self-care is something every kinship caregiver needs.

Jonathan Rockoff is a Training Specialist with the Family and Children’s Resource Program at the UNC School of Social Work.