Thirty-eight years ago, I became a foster parent. The first child I took into my home was a boy, Larome, who was entering the seventh grade at a nearby middle school. He was Black, quiet and had been institutionalized in the juvenile justice system. Some suspected he showed signs of being developmentally disabled.
At the time, I worked with a child care agency tasked with finding Larome a home. The agency had placed him with an older couple, and that didn’t work out. Having been a caregiver for my grandmother, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, I felt obligated to step up to the plate and take Larome home. He was suspicious at first, as many foster children are, but he broke out of his shell and hasn’t stopped talking since. He’s now a preacher, father and family man. I am very proud of him.
Larome was the first of more than 100 kids I’ve raised as a foster dad. I’ve parented both boys and girls of different ethnicities, backgrounds and sexual orientations. Most of the kids stay with me until the age of 21, but it depends on when they arrive.
My home, which the kids have dubbed “Hamilton House,” is located on Chicago’s Southeast side, near Rainbow Beach. Each child has his own room, complete with a television, cable box, DVDs and games. Once a week, the kids can drop off their laundry, usually on Fridays, and I return their clothes cleaned and folded, like the Hilton Hotel chain. Nobody should attend school or be seen out on the street without fresh clothes.
We have our own rituals at Hamilton House, which give the kids a sense that they are a part of something important. Once they arrive, I teach the boys the father-son handshake, while Warren G’s “Regulate” echoes through the speakers—it’s like a ceremonial rite of passage. We also play basketball together at the local gyms. We have matching Hamilton House tees. I take the kids to movies—sometimes as a group, other times one-on-one. I also take them to out-of-state family reunions.
My former position as a homicide detective, although demanding, allowed me the needed scheduling flexibility to spend long hours during the day with my kids. Of course, this wasn’t easy; there were times when I’d work on murders three days in a row, but I still managed to dedicate a considerable amount of time to parenting. I continue to attend foster training sessions provided by Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network, an organization that places foster children and offers other social services on the South Side, which have been invaluable to my development as a father.
When I do room inspections at Hamilton House, it’s not unusual to find cereal, cookies, snacks and peanut butter—or anything else from the kitchen—in the sock drawers. These children came from homes with empty refrigerators and went to school with hunger pangs. So they learned to hoard food.
Alleviating that instinct takes time. I stress to my kids that they will never run out of food. When the pantry is getting bare, they join me on trips to the grocery store. They make lists of what they want, then help shop, push the cart through the aisles and load the bags into the back of my Hummer. I learned the importance of routines from my father, a doctor. I often have to teach my kids basic hygiene and other life skills, such as how to mail a bill.
Currently, I have three young men living with me: a Nigerian and an African-American, both 17; and a Puerto Rican, 19. Like the rest of my children, biological and those I’ve foster parented, they are amazing. My mother, who was an administrator for the Detroit public schools, once told me that the most important role a Black man can fulfill is that of a father, and to be involved in his children’s lives.
I took that seriously, and Hamilton House is the result.