Tony, 18, who has been in foster care his entire life, said he never had a father figure until he met his court-appointed advocate, Jerry Thigpen, three years ago.
“He always has my back,” Tony said of Thigpen, 71, adding that he has never met his biological father. “He is always here to help me when I am down.”
Tony, who spoke under the condition that his last name not be included, and Thigpen — who volunteers for Court Appointed Special Advocates/Prince George’s County, a nonprofit organization tasked with monitoring children in foster care — have a rare volunteer-foster child relationship. Only 10 of the organization’s volunteers are men, compared to an estimated 300 male foster children in the county, according to the group’s executive director, Ann Marie Binsner.
The lack of male volunteers is something Binsner said she hopes to change.
Binsner said CASA volunteers serve about 125 of the county’s estimated 600 foster children (the number changes monthly as some foster youths become emancipated and more enter the system). She said she would love to serve all of the foster children in the county, but the organization would need more volunteers and a larger budget, which is now about $400,000.
She said she hopes the group will start to reflect the gender diversity of the county’s foster children.
“It makes sense that we would want as many male volunteers as we have boys to serve,” she said, pointing out that about half of the county’s foster children are male.
Volunteers for the Hyattsville-based nonprofit agency are appointed by a circuit court judge to visit foster children at least twice per month. Volunteers observe and report to the judge how the children are doing in foster care and what needs they may have, such as counseling or tutoring. The group is the only one of its kind in the county, Binsner said.
Gloria Brown, director of the Prince George’s County Department of Social Services, which handles foster children cases in the county, said in an email that she supports the call for more male volunteers and wished all county foster children had a CASA volunteer.
“Advocating on the behalf of children is an important component to ensuring that youth traverse through foster care with clear expectations,” Brown said.
Tony said that before he met Thigpen, he was headed down the wrong path, getting involved in petty thefts. Tony said Thigpen provided him with a strong male presence he never had and advocated for Tony to be reassigned from his old foster home to one that better suited his needs.
Binsner said she wants other male foster children to have a similar experience.
“I know that there is no shortage of those men in our community,” she said. “We need to show the boys that are struggling with what success and strength look like.”
Nationally, about 30 percent of females volunteered in 2011, the last year for which data is available, compared to 24 percent of males, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Binsner said she thinks the reason so few men volunteer with her group is because many men like to see quick results, and it could take years for their work to show progress.
“Sometimes you see young people making a bad choice and you need to be willing to stick with them and keep at it despite the choice they made,” Binsner said. “It might be five years before they reflect on something that you talked to them about. It is frustrating and not instantly gratifying.”
Thigpen lives in Upper Marlboro and worked with the Secret Service and the Air Force for more than 40 years before retiring.
More men need to volunteer, particularly black men, as most of the county’s foster youth are black, said Thigpen, who is black. Tony is black, as well.
Binsner estimated that about 85 percent of the county’s foster children are black.
Thigpen said he is unsure why more men do not volunteer. He wondered if they understand the severity of the problem.
“I can’t see someone knowing and seeing the problem and not doing anything to rectify the situation,” he said.
Thigpen said he tries to teach Tony simple lessons about being an adult, such as doing chores and being on time to school.
Binsner said CASA volunteers are required to meet with their foster children twice per month and generally put in 12 to 13 hours. Potential volunteers must go through 37 hours of training and complete a full background check before they start.
Tony said Thigpen helped him decide to either apply to Bowie State University or go into the military. He said Thigpen has taught him how to be patient and act responsibly.
“I think about the decisions I make now before I act,” he said. “I know I don’t want to depend on [Thigpen], but I am taking advice [from] him.”
To volunteer with CASA, call 301-209-0491 or go to www.pgcasa.org for more information.