Idaho, 1902: An “officer” of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho writes about how fortunate Native American children are when they are taken from their homes and forced into white-run orphanages. “What a contrast” those wonderful orphanages are, she writes, to the children’s own homes:
The smoking fire in the centre of the tepee, and on it the pot of soup stirred by the not over-clean squaw … and then to think of the neat, comfortable home at the mission, with the uplifting of its daily prayer …
Washington State, 2016: A Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a volunteer named by a juvenile court to investigate a black family, explains why the court should sever the bond between a black father and his children forever:
Formerly homeless, the father had bought an RV for the family to live in. The CASA deemed that an unstable environment and repeatedly compared the RV to the foster home, which had “lots of toys.”
Both of these stories are told in However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs, an article in the City University of New York Law Review by Amy Mulzer, a staff attorney and clinical instructor at Brooklyn Law School, and Tara Urs, an attorney for the King County Department of Public Defense in Washington.
CASA volunteers are 81 percent white and 82 percent female, according to a 2014 national survey. Sixty-nine percent have a college degree. But they are sent out to assist families that are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges what is supposedly in the children’s “best interests.”
However Kindly Intentioned argues that the problem of racial bias in CASA goes far deeper than issues I’ve written about before: a CASA program seeing no problem when a performer at a fundraiser dresses in blackface or a CASA program falling apart as soon as it has to confront issues of race.
CASA is a “Gift” Poor Children Could Do Without
Rather, these authors argue, “CASAs essentially give voice to white supremacy.” The program’s very existence, they argue, is a racist act. Indeed, they say, it is the only context in which the program’s existence makes sense:
- According to a CASA training manual, CASAs are said to be present in order to bring their “community perspective, [and] common sense approach.” But, the authors write, “CASAs are from an entirely different community than the children for whom they are supposed to speak and the parents whose voices they replace.”
- A prominent former judge calls CASAs “the gift of an important person in a child’s life.” But, the authors write, this assumes that until the white, middle-class savior steps in, the child “has no important people in her life already, no aunts or uncles, teachers, neighbors, friends, friends’ parents, pastors, grandparents, or others who have the child’s interests at heart.”
- As I have noted before, CASAs actually spend very little time on a case. They average only 4.3 hours per month if the child is white and notably less, 2.67 hours per month, if the child is black.
- CASA is surprisingly expensive – the authors write that it costs $304 million per year, and more than half the money comes from taxpayers.
- The authors note that CASAs are not required to have expertise in law, social work, psychology or child development. Training is minimal. As another lawyer puts it: “In Washington State it takes 300 hours of training to massage a horse …yet it takes less than 24 hours of training for a volunteer to walk in off the street and recommend that a child never see his or her parent again.”
So courts get recommendations like the one in the RV case. Or a case in which the CASA supported termination of parental rights in part because the parents put too much Desitin on their child’s diaper rash. Or a case in which the CASA expressed concern that a black mother was not sufficiently bonded to her daughter because she allowed the child to unbuckle herself from her car seat and get out of the car on her own, rather than doing these things for her.
And CASA doesn’t work – unless your goal is to prolong foster care and increase the odds children will be placed with strangers instead of relatives. Those were the program’s accomplishments according to the most comprehensive study ever done of CASA, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself. The study found that CASA did nothing to improve child safety.
Despite all this, CASAs are revered figures in court. Judges typically defer to recommendations made by these minimally-trained amateurs. The explanation for such deference, the authors say, is rooted in deep-seated biases about race, class and gender.
“Common Sense” = Middle Class Sensibility
The history of American child welfare is a history of the white middle and upper classes imposing their will on poor people who were hated and feared: Native Americans warehoused in orphanages in order to “kill the Indian, save the man,” impoverished immigrants, victimized by Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, (known in poor neighborhoods simply as “the Cruelty”) and then families of color.
Through it all, the authors write, “white womanhood has been long associated with purity, refinement and correctness … in contrast to depictions of Black and Native women as ‘degraded, immoral, and sexually promiscuous others.’”
So today, the authors argue, a CASA is viewed as an “expert” precisely because “as a white, middle class woman, she benefits from the assumption that such expertise is one of her natural attributes.” “Common sense” equals white, middle-class sensibility. The fact that they are volunteers and have good intentions further insulates CASAs from scrutiny.
The authors conclude:
[T]he lessons of the CASA experiment offer one clear message: the integrity of the legal system is compromised when the law invites voices of privilege to dominate. Given our nation’s long struggle with racial discrimination, it is particularly troubling to allow the voices of white people to speak loudest in a system disproportionately focused on families of color. …
A legal system that allows middle-class white women to speak for the children of poor families of color is not hiding its bias if you only take a moment to look behind the “therapeutic” veneer. This exercise of white supremacy is out in the open, obvious, direct … Allowing CASAs to stand in the place of child welfare-involved parents and speak for child-welfare-involved children is to take the structural racism underlying the child welfare system and give it a seat at the table.