New L.A. CASA Leader Talks Growth, Managing Volunteers and Institutional Racism

This week, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors appointed Wende Nichols-Julien to the county’s Commission on Children and Families.

This fall, Nichols-Julien was brought on as CEO of CASA of Los Angeles, bringing with her years of professional experience in social justice and the law, as well as the personal experience of being a foster parent.

The Chronicle of Social Change sat down with Nichols-Julien to discuss the evolving role of the court appointed special advocate volunteers, the growth of the organization that engages them, and how to bring a social justice lens to this work. Her answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Chronicle of Social Change: There was a a big growth period at CASA prior to your arrival. But CASA funding around the country is not only contingent on private funding. Do you think there’s an opportunity for public funding for CASA?

Wende Nichols-Julien: I think there’s not only an opportunity for public funding, but that’s a route that we have to go. In essence, what CASA is doing is filling gaps in a system that should be covered by public funding….It’s exciting to have flexibility and creativity of the private funding, but the fact that we need CASAs on so many cases is because social workers’ caseloads are too heavy, attorneys’ caseloads are too heavy, there just isn’t the time to have that one-on-one relationship that a CASA can provide, so there needs to be a combination of the realization that this is filling a gap that is a public gap and also the creativity of the private side.

CSC: To what degree have you kind of interacted with CASA National and other CASAs? And is there a CASA program that you would like to emulate? Or do you think that you guys have reached the zenith of CASA Land?

WNJ:  So, I don’t think we’ve reached the zenith – definitely not, actually. I mean, we have 30,000 kids in the system, and we’re only serving 1,000 of them. So, we have a long way to go. And the board fully acknowledges that. We’re in the first year of our strategic plan where the board is hoping that we triple the number of children served get up to 3,000 or 10 percent of that 30,000 by 2020. So, there’s definitely the expectation that we continue on a growth path, and even accelerate the growth more than it has been in the past.

There are some things that some of [the other CASA programs in California] are doing that I definitely want to emulate here. There are some that have a lower cost per child ratio, so they’re able to leverage volunteers to do more things than we are doing here.

I’d love to see us expand, have volunteers do training and volunteer outreach and supervise other volunteers, and use that volunteer leverage to help us to be able to serve more children without having to necessarily hire more staff. I think that will be attractive to funders and donors in seeing that we’re really using the volunteers in a lot of different ways.

CSC: How do you use volunteers effectively?

WNJ:  I think there are two groups of people – which ironically leaves me out, but I’ll explain that – who are particularly suited to do this [CASA volunteer work], and this is people who are retired and millennials.

Folks who are retired, obviously, have time, and a lot of them I think come from a philanthropic type background, having grown up in families where philanthropy was considered something they should do in their retirement.

And then we have this group of people – young people, young professionals – who are doing things in their daily lives at their corporate job that maybe are not quite as fulfilling as they were hoping to and looking for something that gives them that intrinsic reward. And the CASA volunteer experience is that. You get to write a court report and have the judge ask you what you think about the case in the middle of court and see a tangible impact on the child that you’re working with.

And that’s not the kind of volunteer opportunity that most agencies are able to offer. We have 600 plus volunteers, and they’re basically our unpaid staff. They’re doing the direct service work that otherwise would have to be paid for and doing it at a level of quality that’s pretty exceptional.

CSC: So, how do you as an incoming ED make the case to funders that you’re going to triple the number of kids you serve by 2020? How much further are you going to have to take your budget?

WNJ:  One thing that I’ve learned that makes us very unique among other CASAs – and I think some of the other CASAs in California are moving this direction – but we’re really far ahead in that we are now measuring evidence-based outcomes on what we’re doing.

We’re extremely close to having year-to-year comparisons on what are our permanency outcomes and how do those compare to children under DCFS care as a whole? What are the baseline numbers of the child who comes into CASA around education, mental health, physical health? And then how do those identifiers change over time with them having a CASA on their case?

I know this is what funders are looking for. They want to see now not just how many kids are you serving, but what kind of impact are you making on their lives, because we could serve all 30,000 kids, and if there’s no impact, there’s no point. But if we’re serving 1,000 kids and showing, wow if you have a CASA, you maybe get a faster permanency outcome, that’s the kind of thing that I think will really trigger us to be able to move to that next level, both in terms of the funding and service.

CSC: Tell us a little bit about your strategic plan. How are you going to execute it?

WNJ:  Right. So, the strategic plan is going to start by filling out sort of the robust nature of the program that we’re doing and focusing on quality so that we know that each child that we’re impacting is receiving the whole child advocacy service.

All of our volunteers [are] now trained to actually do the uploading of data into our database. And then we have professionals on our staff who are evaluators who are looking at that data, doing quality control, and then getting reports on what the what the benefits are. That’s the internal piece of helping volunteers feel like they can actually see the improvements, and then we have done some really big strategic work around looking at focusing on communities where we think there’s a big potential for finding new volunteers.

And rather than trying to spread our four-person recruitment team throughout the county, which is basically impossible, is having them focus on those neighborhoods and finding people who are already connected to CASAs and bringing them in.

I just found out that January was a record. We had 62 people attend information sessions. That’s the way we’re going to make this change is by creating avalanche of volunteers, and then being able to say to funders: we have all these volunteers, we have all the children on the waiting list, you know, help us fill the gap as far as hiring their supervisors to make it happen.

CSC: You’re new to the block. What have you learned that you think would be instructive to other CASA leaders?

WNJ:  I definitely feel like I’m the one learning from them. And I think for me being a new executive director, it’s a huge benefit to have all these other directors around who can give advice.

One of the interesting things that I bring into this work is I’ve been working in eliminating systemic oppression for most of my career, and that’s not how most people come in this direction. I think that it’s an interesting and different way of looking at CASA’s work as social justice work. And that is something that’s very appealing to people right now in terms of their wanting to get involved.

So, I sit on a committee called eliminating racial disparities, and that’s focused on what the history of especially Black African American families and children has been in Los Angeles County DCFS system. That’s really meaningful to me because I’m originally from Flagstaff, Arizona. My parents both taught on the Navajo Reservation as I was growing up. And, obviously, child welfare and the Indian Child Welfare Act, ICWA, and the history of these systems taking children away from Native families and Black African American families is real. The statistics don’t lie. And it continues. If you look at both Native American kids and African American kids in the Los Angeles system, they’re represented at about double of what their population is represented.

And I think that that’s something that CASA has always known, but I hope to bring more to light in terms of what the work that we’re doing, and that there is a social justice aspect to what happens in this courtroom about how poverty impacts how people lose their children, and the way that families experience the system. And a lot of things have improved, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be made.

CSC:  How do you respond to the kind of charge by critics that CASA, by nature of having wealthier volunteers who might bring some bias into the room, might put up barriers to reunification?

WNJ: Right. Yeah, my sister is a social worker and worked for Child Protective Services in Arizona for 15 years, and she definitely has shared some of those concerns with me. And it’s something I don’t take lightly. I think I understand fundamentally why that could be not just perceived as a problem but a real problem.

So, I think there are a couple things that CASA can do to address that. First is what we’re doing is really working to diversify who the CASA volunteers are and make a valiant effort to recruit people who look more like the children that are being served in this courthouse and also come from the same neighborhoods.

Technology is helping with that. So much of what a CASA needs to do now in terms of the volunteering can be done on their own time, at their own computer, on their phone so that we’re reducing the number of hours that someone has to be outside of their home doing work hopefully to be able to attract more working people and people who have other family and type obligations so you don’t just have to get the wealthy retired folks as CASA volunteers.

The other thing is about training and that, I mean, I heard a CASA volunteer who would fit into all of those characteristics – wealthy, white and retired – speak about how much he has learned through his process of being a volunteer about systemic racism and about seeing the world from the perspective of the child that he’s advocating for.

And, so, it had actually never occurred to me before the idea that this advocacy relationship could also have impact on the adults in the relationship – on the CASA volunteer – in changing their perspective on social justice issues by putting them in the middle of a situation they would never otherwise find themselves.

Changing the system can’t be a job that belongs to the children in the system or the social workers who work in the system. It’s got to be on a broader scale. So, the more we can bring people into the system to enlighten them to what’s going on, I think is a better alternative.

Daniel Heimpel contributed to this article.

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Elizabeth Green
About Elizabeth Green 39 Articles
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.