Story, photo courtesy CASA
Phoenix resident Adele James was sitting on the couch watching television 17 years ago when she saw a commercial that changed her life.
“I don’t remember much about the advertisement, but I could see there was a program that was helping children in foster care, so I knew I wanted to get involved,” James said.
The program, James learned, is called CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, and recruits and trains volunteers statewide to serve as advocates in court for children in the foster care system.
To date, James has advocated for about 30 children in foster care, but what makes her unique is that her focus has been solely on the youth who need her most – African American children.
“The children in our community are suffering,” James said. “They’re being left out and being left in the system. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to think you’re going to sleep in your own bed at night, only to have strangers come and take you away and place you in an unfamiliar home with strangers.”
She added, “They probably don’t look like you and they don’t really understand you, yet you’re expected to be able to get along with everyone in that home and labeled if you don’t.”
Although black children make up only 5 percent of children in Arizona, they make up almost 14 percent of children in the foster care system, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Less than 28 percent of these children are living with a family member and less than half of them are likely to go home.
“They’re being attended to by people who don’t look like them and people who don’t understand them,” James said.
James said that as an advocate, she not only ensures that black children are moving swiftly through the court system toward a permanent home, but that she connects them with resources in the community that they may not have access to if they are living in homes that don’t understand their racial and ethnic identities.
James often takes her appointed children to places they have never had the opportunity to see, such as Cirque du Soleil, the Black Rodeo, Schnepf Farms and the Olive Mill. She takes the time to talk with them about black history, the civil rights movement and the struggles that they could encounter throughout their lifetime as African Americans.
“Obviously I do it from my heart because we don’t get paid,” James said.
While CASA volunteers are only allowed to begin with one case, James has served in her capacity so long that she is currently appointed to five different cases with nine children.
Leticia D’Amore, who manages the CASA of Arizona program statewide, said that there is an urgent need for more volunteers, especially African American, male and Hispanic volunteers to be able to better serve the diverse children living in out-of-home care in Arizona.
African American volunteers currently make up only four percent of the approximately 850 CASA volunteers statewide, D’Amore said. And out of all the children who have CASA volunteers advocating for them, only 9 percent are African American. “As an African American woman and as a CASA volunteer, I want to see more African American volunteers advocating for more African American children,” James said.
To learn more about CASA and to become a volunteer, visit www.casaofarizona.org or call (602) 452-3683.