Motivated by his own tumultuous childhood, a new law grad plans to advocate for those in need.
When 11-year-old Joshua Wilkinson, gas-station slushie in hand, turned the corner toward his house, the police car in his driveway didn’t surprise him. “Cops had been there for various things before,” he says. But this time Joshua, who had bounced between foster homes and his parents for more than a year, was ushered directly into a police car and taken from his home for good.
Joshua, who spent his early childhood in a Salt Lake City suburb with his mom, dad, and three sisters, liked working on bikes with his dad, playing video games with his mom, and walking the train tracks with his friends—“good memories,” he says.
But there are dark memories too: his parents, whose lives became consumed by their drug addictions, would disappear into their room for hours, sometimes days. The utilities were shut off on multiple occasions. Joshua remembers once scrounging for coins, buying a frozen burrito at the gas station, and waiting for it to thaw on the counter so he’d have something to eat.
Fast-forward 19 years: Joshua (JD ’15) is a J. Reuben Clark Law School grad, national recognition under his belt, determined to help others who come from tough life circumstances.
That determination springs in large part from the sense of helplessness and confusion he felt after being taken from his parents. “I was kind of mad at the situation, because I didn’t really understand,” he says. Nor did his parents, who, he later learned, tried to get their kids back. But without financial or legal resources, their efforts were fruitless. “I don’t think any of us was fully informed,” Joshua adds.
When he was 12, Joshua landed with Ronald D. (BA ’86, JD ’89) and Vania Ouzounian Wilkinson (’92), who had been fostering two of his sisters. Because he swore and had tried alcohol and cigarettes, the boy had pegged himself “a risky kid”—but relieved to be with his sisters in a stable family, he tried “to be good and not mess up.”
Though baptized when he was 8, he’d had little exposure to the Church. When his foster parents asked if he was a deacon, however, he—unsure but eager to please—assured them he was. He passed the sacrament for months before learning about ordination. “It was one of the hardest things to go to my dad and say, ‘I never got the priesthood.’ I was so worried I’d be a disappointment.”
Ron, who later became Joshua’s adoptive father, remembers his son in those early days being “very quiet, very cautious in his emotions, . . . but earnest in wanting to do what was right.”
And that trait extended beyond his new home. The boy who had faked sick to get out of school when he was younger became a standout student, involved in debate and student council. After serving a mission to Mexico and earning a bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University, Joshua started at BYU’s Law School—following in Ron’s footsteps.
Peter D. Leavitt (BA ’02), a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney who was Joshua’s BYU mock trial team coach for two years, remembers Joshua’s creative ability to communicate and connect with a jury: “I think a lot of that comes from his unique life experience.”
Though he has mixed feelings about his past, Joshua has reconnected with his biological dad, now sober (his mom died when Joshua was 13). “I’ve tried to take the good parts of my life when I was younger and the good from the Wilkinsons, and I try to be comfortable with who I am,” he says.
As a third-year law student, Wilkinson drew from both his past and present to propose a program to provide legal assistance for low-income individuals and families. The concept, which won him national recognition in the Avvo Scholar Circle, would also benefit recent law grads, who would assist in exchange for student-loan credit.
Newly graduated, he’s studying for the bar and considering work in family law or criminal defense. Wherever he lands, he plans to help people like his biological family. “I came from an underprivileged situation where the legal community really impacted my life,” he says. “I can’t see myself ignoring that.”