Foster Alumnus Dedicates Career to Foster Care Advocacy
“When we talk about improving outcomes for youth in foster care, it’s critical to make sure current foster youth and foster alumni have a seat at the table where decisions are being made. We need to approach system reform from the perspective of the young people who are meant to be benefitting from these programs,” James McIntyre shared.
James McIntyre spent 17 years in the foster care system before aging out of foster care at age 21. Since then, he has dedicated his career to advocacy and system reform. James currently serves as the Director of Community Outreach and Engagement for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Cook County, and he served for five years as President of the Foster Care Alumni Association in Illinois. OHU was proud to present its President’s Award to James in 2020 in recognition of his unwavering dedication to bringing about true and lasting reform.
“I was physically abused as a child, and eventually I needed therapy and care at a high-level Residential home,” James said. “I made it out of the system and worked as hard as I could to improve my circumstances. For years I worked a full-time job while also working with the Foster Care Association of Illinois at nights and on weekends. I’ve only begun to see my efforts come to fruition in recent years and seeing that my sacrifices were worth it means everything.”
James believes social services providers have a duty “to walk hand-in-hand with foster youth, and make sure they feel like people, not commodities.” While James was living at One Hope United’s Residential home in Lake Villa, he saw Executive Directors and other members of OHU’s leadership team visiting campus regularly and developing positive relationships with youth there. He shared that this was the first time he saw leadership choosing to be actively involved in the lives of the children in their programs, from holiday visits to day-to-day activities. “We felt cared for – we didn’t feel like we were just a paycheck,” James said.
At 18, James was invited to join the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Youth Advisory Board. He said this experience motivated him to think more about his place in the world, and the places where he could make an impact. “Seeing agencies having honest conversations with young people and with their constituents was huge for me,” James shared.
Rather than viewing the challenges he’s faced as entirely negative experiences, James focuses on the knowledge he can use to improve systems for other foster youth. “Coming from the foster care system and the environments where I grew up, I know we can do better,” he said. “When children are placed in a bureaucratic system, their firsthand knowledge and lived experience should inform decisions about their care.”
Growing up in the foster care system, there were times when James did not feel like his perspective was valued, or that he could openly express who he was. “I always knew I was queer, but in certain situations I was forced by people in my life to remain in the closet, or to go back into the closet,” he said. James went on to say he was impressed by the work OHU has put into accepting and celebrating LGBTQ+ children, youth and families. “There is a lot of visual representation of LGBTQ+ staff and leaders here, which is crucial in making sure a young queer kid knows that where they’re going will be safe and affirming. And for a queer foster youth to see LGBTQ+ leaders like OHU’s President and CEO, Dr. Charles A. Montorio-Archer, who are out, proud, and at the top of their field – that could make a dramatic difference in a young person’s life.”
James shared that the messages and lessons instilled in him by staff members at the Lake Villa campus have often played out in his life as an adult. “People like Glen Seymour told me I would look back and understand what they were talking about, and that’s really true,” James said. “The Residential team helped me gain strength and confidence in myself. They helped shape me into the advocate I am today.”
When asked how he feels people can make a positive impact for a youth in foster care, James shared that he sees many ways to get involved outside of becoming a foster parent. “You don’t have to be an attorney or a child welfare expert – anyone can make that positive impact just by being a caring, stable figure in a young person’s life,” James concluded. “One consistent adult can make all the difference.”