Latest CASA Scandal Should Be No Surprise: Bias Is Built into The Model

Anita Farris, a superior court judge in Snohomish County, Wash., says, “I’ve only used the ‘P word’ once in 23 years on this bench, and it applies in this situation.”

That’s P as in perjury.

KING-TV in Seattle
reports the alleged perjurer is Cynthia Bemis, a “volunteer guardian-ad-litem” in child maltreatment cases. Most states use a different term: Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA).

The program Bemis volunteers for lists itself as “accredited by the National CASA Association and … an associated member of Washington State CASA.”

At issue is how Bemis “infiltrated” – that’s the judge’s word – a listserv run by public defenders representing parents in child welfare cases. The judge called her explanation “filled with lies.” And, the judge says, Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that.

In fact, according to the judge, Bemis was essentially a one-woman NSA, spying on the defense attorneys to use the information against families. The judge says Bemis’ bosses knew or should have known that, too.

Bemis denies any wrongdoing. She says the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. Says Bemis: “My commitment to the welfare of children has never changed and never will.”

Other Examples of Bias

The case is just the most recent example of the bias that permeates CASA, the most sacred cow in child welfare:

  • In Arkansas City, Kan., a CASA chapter’s fundraiser featured a drag queen contest. The winner was the 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.
  • In Indianapolis, the website for the CASA program declares every family from whom a child is taken is guilty. According to the website: “volunteers help ensure that the children we fight to protect are not returned to the very situations where the mistreatment occurred” [emphasis added].

Of course, most CASAs don’t behave this way. And some CASAs do excellent work.  But these sorts of problems are almost inevitable. So is behavior like this and this and this, and defenses of CASA like this.

Because bias is built into the way CASA works:

CASA depends on volunteers spending a few hours each month on a single case. Who has time for that? Not a poor person holding down two jobs. So it’s no wonder CASA programs sometimes are pet projects of the local Junior League and the demographics of CASAs tend to be vastly different from the demographics of the families they judge.

CASA volunteers, mostly middle class and overwhelmingly white, march into the homes of people who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately people of color. Then they pass judgment on the families and recommend whether they should get their children back. Judges routinely rubber-stamp their recommendations.

Disturbing Findings from a Study

The demographic information, and the information about judges’ behavior, can be found in the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA – a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself.

But that wasn’t all the study found. As Youth Today reported at the time, the study “delivers some surprisingly damning numbers”:

  • The study found that CASA’s only real accomplishments were to prolong the time children languished in foster care and reduce the chance that the child will be placed with relatives.
  • The study found no evidence that having a CASA on the case does anything to improve child safety – so all that extra foster care is for nothing. (The study specifically controlled for CASA’s all-purpose excuse for this – the claim that CASAs handle the most difficult cases.)
  • The study found that when a CASA is assigned to a child who is black, the CASA spends, on average, significantly less time on the case. (The study also found that CASAs don’t spend as much time on cases as the organization’s public relations may lead people to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and 2.67 hours per month on cases involving black children.)

No matter how desperately they try to spin the findings (and Youth Today concluded that those efforts “can border on duplicity”), the problem is built into the CASA model itself.

So we need a better model.

CASAs still can perform a useful service as mentors to foster children and in advocating for services. But children need a real voice in court, a lawyer with a mandate to fight for what that child wants, for any child old enough to make known a competent preference.

That’s not because the child will always be right. It’s because judges are more likely to make the best decisions when all sides have advocates making the best possible case – rather than ratifying a Junior Leaguer’s impressions.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, 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).


  1. In Oklahoma a CASA worker is found guilty of embezzling $625,000 a month after she was named employee of the year. They were told this was going on by a private citizen (me) who they called a liar. To which the citizen said oh well don’t believe me the audit is in 2 months she won’t be able to hide it then.

  2. I was treated unfairly can someone please help me get a case looked at and appeal it. I AM IN INDIANA PLEASE

  3. BEWARE if you are a mother with evidence of child abuse against the father and CASA is on the case. CASA gets Federal Fatherhood Initiative funding started under the Clinton Administration then expanded under the Obama Administration. According to the Congressional Report this funding is intended to give “Fathers” leverage in custody, even Convicted Felons who get resources to get out of prison through this same fatherhood funding. Good mothers all across the country are losing custody to abusive fathers and evidence of abuse is being ignored! CASA uses claims of “Parental Alienation” (invented by a pedophile) to deflect from the abusive fathers. Where are the resources for the victim mothers? 80% of DV and abuse is perpetrated by males. Women and children lie in court 2-8% of the time. So why are we continually giving tax dollars to the criminals and not the victims. DV and abuse has RISEN drastically since this Fatherhood Initiative funding has been allocated. Obviously there’s a PROBLEM! If you are a good mother and feel your rights were violated please contact:

  4. After 20 plus years of court watching and advocating for children and domestic violence victims we are convinced, the more third parties place themselves between the judge and the evidence, the more corrupt, twisted and prolonged these child custody cases become. In Family Law it is the parents fighting over the custody of the children. In Dependency Court it is the state fighting one or both parents to swallow the child into the foster care/group home or forced adoption. Either court…too often, the rulings are horrendous and make for the worst outcome for the child.

    Our question: When did law enforcement relinquish its mandates to protect children by conducting proper investigations into crimes against children to untrained social workers with liberal arts degrees? When did judges loose their places on the bench as triers of fact to scores of third party appointees?

    Get rid of them all third parties. Lets go back to the days when any given case would be composed of the opposing parties, the Judge, two attorneys (if the litigants can afford them) and the EVIDENCE. Get back to doing your job Judges. Read the evidence yourself and stop relying on the child custody industry that surrounds the courts with their feelings and hunches and layer of hearsay…that bleeds the life out of litigants and the precious resources of the state.

  5. I am an attorney in Arkansas and have taken several near pro bono termination cases that are completely outrageous and nothing more than state kidnapping for back door baby shopping by foster parents. In the most egregious case we now have at the court of appeals, the CASA volunteer was the steadfast advocate for the parents who are so blatantly being wronged. In our case the judge dismissed every one of her reports and her testimony that was backed up by therapists. The ad litem we found out after the ruling has never even met the child. We need a congressional investigation into the Title IV-E money that gives federal funds to child protective agencies for every child in foster care and a bonus if they are adopted.

  6. As a CASA agency, it’s something we have to look at every day and every time we send someone out in the field to advocate for a youth in the system. That is, personal bias and whether the CASA has the tools needed to do a professional-level job as a volunteer advocate. This is not just an issue at the CASA level, it’s an issue at the CPS worker level, the lawyer level, and at the judicial level. Furthermore, at the journalist level, which is the easiest level of them all for they don’t work in the trenches, but from their comfy arm-chairs making judgements on the work or others.

    Don’t get me wrong, we need writers to call out the discrepancies and errors of our systems. and to let the public know there is injustice happening that needs to be addressed. However, when the writer aims his mighty pen with bias, he stands to do much more harm than good. Just as much as a rogue CASA, a rouge caseworker, or a rogue attorney.

    I will use this opinion piece as an example to our CASAs and our CASA staff the continuing importance of looking at our personal biases and making sure our work with foster children and their families is coming from the right places and our work if focused on best interest of the youth. Of course we do this already, but CASAs need to know the potential harm that bias can do to a very worthy cause, whether it be bias in work ethic or bias in written media.

    • You mostly just begged for money. “Tools”. And made it clear you don’t like reporters nosing into YOUR BUSINESS..Trenches? Give me a freaking break.

  7. Oh yea, Thanks Mr. Wexler for the article. Casa of Southern California is pretty bad, the advocates barely see the children but have such a heavy hand in where they end up. Out here it’s just another “weapon of the state” first, I really don’t know what they do with children, I’ve heard so many complaints about them, especially out of Edelman’s court.

    Speaking of cross dressing, you should of seen LA’s Court Appointed supervisor put on a trans show at Edelman’s a few years ago. While they were supposedly overwhelmed with caseloads, they managed to slip in a whole afternoon of fun out on the patio, with some type of cross dressing skit. This may have been a casa event.

    Someone should write an article about CASA Brunches and how essential they are in sucking up to judges and referees, as if they are it’s only purpose.

  8. The amazing thing is that people are still telling the stories of how CPS helps or is necessary. If some of the title IV funding were used to prosecute perjury by CPS workers maybe these CASA would be deterred from commuting perjury.
    The fact, and I mean FACT, is that CPS is a creation of the Third Reich and has no place in a free society that also values the lives of children for children.
    No one can make an educated assessment of the situation,let alone come up with a rational decision, with the records sealed . That’s the idiotic part of all of this . Opinions and half-facts being tossed around like a whiskey jug at a hillbilly convention.
    Open the records and close down the secret courts .

  9. CASA are junior GAL attorneys and CPS caseworker puppets who claim to be the VOICE OF CHILDREN in the courtroom. Pleeeze. I didn’t know that all alleged neglected, abused and AT RISK (carte blanche label to take any child) children are mute, unable to express an opinion. But then, best interests of the children is YOUR call, without input from parents.
    CPS department attorneys decide case outcomes. Judges merely agree. And you guys simply promote their inflated egos by sitting beside them, nodding your heads. Contested allegations result in “settlement” conferences, threats of forever losing your children and coercive tactics that should be illegal, not condoned in any court of law.

  10. Disagreement or different viewpoints within the child welfare system is nothing new. We have a complex enough system, full of contradictory imperatives and feelings that differing viewpoints are almost expected. I have to speak up, however, because I feel that Mr. Wexler has gotten some of this wrong.

    I am a former CASA volunteer, a former CASA program director, a member of our state CASA board and a National CASA Association committee member. It is troubling to me to cast aside the working of thousands of volunteers in over 900 programs across 49 states because of the bad examples of a few.


    1) The study you cite is twelve years old and, even at the time of the study, widely contested. It was not representative of all CASA programs at the time and much has changed in the CASA world since things, including constructive changes made as a result of the study you cite.
    2) CASA programs do not condone “NSA” tactics such as with the case you cite in Seattle. In fact, on the national, state and local level, I have been part of constructive changes to remove “investigate” from the words used to describe a CASA advocate’s role.
    3) If true, the actions of the Kansas CASA program are reprehensible. Each CASA program is independent. Assuming questionable judgment in one program can be extrapolated to all or even most programs is flawed logic.
    4) The quote you give from the Indianapolis program is spot on. CASA programs are most generally assigned AFTER DISPOSITION, meaning that a parent has already admitted to abuse or neglect or a court has found them guilty. It is just a legal fact at the point, not a moral judgment, as you infer.

    As to the speculation about the amount of time CASA advocates spend on cases and that white children get more time than black, shame on you. My experience as a CASA volunteer and program director tell me you are dead wrong. The core of the volunteers I have known and supervised were well-trained, competent people who gave generously of their time. Some were retired. Others, like me, worked full-time.

    Oh, and by the way, I was that CASA volunteer assigned to a black child. I sure did not skimp on my time, as that black child is now my son and has grown into a smart, loving young man. I got involved as a CASA volunteer when he had already lingered in foster care for SIX YEARS after he was freed for adoption.

    Please, in the future, rely more heavily on a broader spectrum of facts, and more recent data. Your uniformed words are harmful.

    Richard Heyl de Ortiz

    • If you truly believe due process protections exist in child welfare cases, I can bet communication with birth parents was not part of your CASA job description. In my years of observing CPS hearings and working with parents I KNOW CASA volunteers steer clear of mom and dad – because guilt is assumed. The caseworker and GAL attorney say so. Judges buy it. Attorneys for parents do nothing but advise cooperation – without an independent investigation or assertive representation in contested cases. So, your side wins. It always wins. Families suffer. CASA are not the VOICE OF CHILDREN. They have their own voices.

    • I think you’re right about the NSA part though. The casa’s out here are paper tiger idiots who don’t even know how to turn on a computer. What i do know is that CASA nationwide is mostly on the take, just another disguised weapon for the state when it comes to child welfare. I’ve heard CASA is good in parts of the country but not too many. Most of them are quite destructive to cases. You probably are in one of the good areas, very few though…

    • Thank you, Richard, for your professional response, based in fact. I am currently a CASA Program Coordinator and it saddens me greatly how this writer is using a few bad apples to spoil the whole basket. Human beings are flawed. That is why we have accountability and checks and balances in our judicial system. It would certainly be a very sad day for foster children if CASA ceased to exist. Yes, we need to listen to constructive criticism and be amenable to improvement–which I feel we are–but overall CASA is doing a good service for foster children who might otherwise languish in the system.

    • No you’re NOT there to help any child!!!!! My grandson was placed in foster care in Dallas, TX. The GAL and the CASA workers assigned to my grandsons case kept him in Foster care, even after my husband and I passed ALL background check, psychological testing, and all home visits. To make the situation even worse, the Foster family that my African American grandson is with are Caucasian. CASA isn’t helping any child, if I’m witnessing first hand that my grandson should be with his family that truly loves him, and can financially support and care for him. This agency and its workers should be investigated. There is no way a child should be kept in foster care when the child has relatives available to take him.

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