#CASAsoWhite: Forced to Face Issues of Race, a County CASA Program Collapses

Cowley County, Kan., a place almost exactly in the middle of middle-America, is conservative and working-class. It would seem to have little in common with coastal Marin County, Calif., one of the wealthiest places in America, where the politics are as blue as the ocean.

But it seems the two places have one thing in common: an inability to confront issues of race and class biases in that most sacred cow of child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

CASA volunteers are assigned to court-involved families in which children have been, or might be, removed from their homes, and tell the court what to do about it. Courts routinely rubber-stamp the recommendations of CASA volunteers.

No one doubts that, like most people in child welfare, CASA volunteers mean well. But nationwide, while more than 41 percent of the children to whom CASAs are assigned are children of color, only 18 percent of CASA volunteers are nonwhite. Children in the child welfare system are overwhelmingly poor. Since CASAs are volunteers, they need free time and flexible hours; often poor people have neither.

So you get this:

An Unfortunate Fundraising Event For One CASA Chapter

In Cowley County, the big annual fundraiser for CASA in 2008 was a drag queen contest. The winner of the talent competition – and the “Miss CASA” title – was a local mayor.  He dressed up as a woman to whom he gave a surname described as “graphic slang for a female private part.” So is the name the mayor chose for his back-up dancers. Oh, and one more thing: The mayor did his act made up in blackface.

The local CASA director said she was mortified when someone explained what the surname meant.  Other than that, though, she thought the whole thing was great, telling a local news website: “The part of his act I felt was excellent was the dancing. … The back-up singers were gorgeous and could probably back up any professional.” As for the blackface, the CASA director said she didn’t think the mayor was trying to portray a different race: “It wasn’t black black,” she said. “It was all really just tan.”

It was not until after the National CASA Association went into damage control mode and set up a conference call with the local chapter, the state chapter and the local NAACP that the local chapter apologized.

Conflict Over Diversity in Another

In Marin County things were more complicated.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, it began when the state CASA organization got upset at how white things were at Marin CASA – presumably even whiter than the national average, since they called for a “much more robust outreach plan for men, Latinos and African-Americans.”

The Marin CASA program was run by Marin Advocates for Children. Kerline Astre, an African-American who is executive director of Marin Advocates for Children, took the criticism to heart and decided to act. Astre says that when CASA director Laurie Good, who reports to Astre, resisted reform, she fired Good.

The firing, and a critique saying they were insufficiently diverse, apparently greatly upset the CASA volunteers. Their complaints prompted the county judge who handles child welfare cases to act. Unfortunately, she did not decide she ought to consider if there really was a diversity problem in CASA.

Instead she said Astre, who sought to make the program more diverse, and the entire board of Marin Advocates for Children, should resign. When they didn’t, the judge shut down the program. CASA in the county is on hold until a new sponsoring organization can be found.

Meanwhile, Good argues that she is the one who was discriminated against. She’s filed a lawsuit. Perhaps all this helps explain why, in Marin County, black children are in foster care at a rate more than 23 times the rate for white children.

These are not the only CASA chapters to be embroiled in high-profile scandal. Recall the CASA program in Washington State in which one of the volunteers was accused by a judge of spying on lawyers for parents – and lying about it in court. CASA chapters also behaved badly in another Washington State case and this high-profile case in Texas.

And most important, there’s that great big, embarrassing 2004 study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself. As a Youth Today columnist put it at the time, the study

not only challenged the effectiveness of the court volunteers’ services, but suggested that they spend little time on cases, particularly those of black children, and are associated with more removals from the home and fewer efforts to reunite children with parents or relatives.

Yes, there have been slight improvements. National CASA now has an African-American CEO. And the fact that California CASA raised the issue of diversity was a start. But now, the state organization does not seem to be backing up Astre, who tried to make Marin CASA more diverse.

And racial diversity is not enough. In child welfare, racial bias often combines with class bias to create a toxic mix for poor families of color. Economic diversity is almost impossible in a program dependent on volunteers.

In its current form, CASA is inherently unfixable. CASAs should be restricted to the one area where they really can be useful: as mentors for foster children. Such a program would provide real help for children, instead of harming them by prolonging foster care and undermining families.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).