Darryl Calhoun and his wife treasured their time as foster parents, often choosing to take in the children deemed “difficult” by the foster care system.
They grew close with a child who was frequently placed at their home, ultimately trying to adopt him, but were denied, Calhoun says, in part because of the negative perception of African American families and black men as potential foster parents.
“We weren’t being recognized during that time as viable candidates for adoption or foster parenting of same race, foster kids or Caucasian kids,” he says.
Motivated by the rejection, Calhoun looked for ways to become directly involved in a foster child’s case and add an African American perspective. He became a volunteer with Court Appointed Special Advocates of Cook County, known as CASA, part of a national organization that trains volunteers as advocates for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
Calhoun, a CASA supervisor and advocate, says he realized there was a shortage of African American volunteers that continues more than a decade after he first volunteered.
CASA has 340 volunteers working on behalf of 650 children, according to Bonita Carr, the group’s executive director. About 80% of the volunteers are white, middle-aged men and women, while 61% of the kids in the program are African American and 18% are Latino, according to CASA. The children range largely from newborns to 11 years old.
Calhoun says some African American men might think they aren’t qualified to volunteer, or something in their backgrounds keeps them from stepping forward.
“If we want African American males, we have to more intimately define what barriers they see, as opposed to saying, you know, ‘You’re an African American male, we need you. You should be doing this,’ ” Calhoun says.
Many kids in foster care are looking for a strong male presence on their case, he says — someone they can view as a father figure and share details about their lives they might not feel comfortable talking about with anyone else.
Carr says children in foster care need to be around people they can see in themselves.
“If you see a doctor who is African American, you will believe that you can achieve that same status because you can identify with that person better,” she says. “It’s extremely important for our children to be able to see people who look like them so that they can connect better.”
CASA volunteers typically handle one child or a set of siblings at a time, spending an average of 10 hours a month on each case. They are required to meet with the children at least once a month and make a minimum commitment of one year. Volunteers inform the judge overseeing each child’s case of medical, schooling or other needs and recommend either a return to their parents or a permanent placement for the children.
As mentors, the volunteers often are the only constants in the children’s lives amid repeated upheavals, according to Carr.
“They are facing the most traumatic time during their lives, and it’s important for someone to understand the music that they’re listening to or whatever they’re going through,” she says.
Anibal Vega, CASA’s director of community engagement and training, says that when he was growing up around gangs in Humboldt Park, a mentor helped him.
“They said, ‘Oh, Anibal’s a great leader, great communicator, let me take him from there and put him somewhere positive,’ ” says Vega, who has also worked for the other commnity organizations including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council.
Vega, whose family comes from Puerto Rico, says having someone who looked like him and understood his community was key.
“Our young men are being judged very quickly,” Vega says. “As a Latino male working with a young Latino male, I can understand, and I can relate, and I can provide the best recommendation for that young person because I’m not judging them because I knew the same environment.”
He says he appreciates that people from other communities volunteer but says, “We need our own people to advocate for us because they know who we are both culturally, and they know because they’re in the community as well.”