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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