This week, Charity Chandler-Cole will start her new job as chief executive officer of Los Angeles County’s court-appointed special advocates, or CASA. Working out of an office at the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Courthouse, Chandler-Cole will return to the heart of the county’s child welfare system, a place that holds many traumatic memories for her.
Before this week, she had not been back to the courthouse since a judge separated her nephew from his mother, her sister, several years ago.
“My last vision of him in court was him screaming, going one way, and her screaming, going another way,” Chandler-Cole told The Imprint. “I’m probably gonna be really emotional on my first day.”
Growing up, Chandler-Cole entered the foster care and juvenile justice systems at age 16. Since then, she has forged a career as a nonprofit leader and advocate. She is the board chair for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and also serves on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families, where she co-chairs the racial justice committee. Chandler-Cole is also raising four children and serves as a relative caregiver for her nephew.
“Charity is the right leader at the perfect time for CASA/LA,” said U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) in a news release. “She is a visionary who will be a tireless champion for the program and the children and families they serve.”
In recent years, Chandler-Cole has become an outspoken voice for racial justice in the child welfare system.
“Our foster care system was not designed to protect our Black children, but rather mirrors the oppression, discrimination and harassment Black people experience in this country daily,” she wrote in an opinion piece published by The Imprint last year.
Chandler-Cole sees her new job as a natural extension of her advocacy work. But it is also a framework for contending with the complicated legacy of CASAs, volunteers tasked with providing mentorship and advocacy to children who have been separated from their parents. These dependency court-appointed advocates make recommendations to judges about a child’s case, opinions that can carry considerable weight in court proceedings.
Critics of the role CASAs sometimes play in children’s lives say that too often, these well-meaning advocates do not represent the race or class of the children in foster care, have little sympathy with their parents and at times “give voice to white supremacy.” A 2019 study in the Child Maltreatment journal found that children with CASAs were less likely to reunify with their parents and more likely to be adopted than children who had not been appointed court advocates.
Coming aboard an organization that serves the nation’s largest locally administered child welfare system, Chandler-Cole sees her new role as the beginning of a needed transformation of the CASA program.
In an interview with The Imprint, she shared how her life might have been different with a CASA’s support, why the program needs to diversify and when advocates should get involved in the court process.
When you were 16, you were caught stealing underwear for your sisters, an experience that landed you first in juvenile hall and then in Los Angeles County’s foster care system. Did you have a CASA in the system growing up?
I never had a CASA growing up. My family didn’t have anyone coming to bat for us and fighting for us and saying, “We need to find resources and opportunities for this family and these children.” No one came and looked at our circumstances or the context behind why things were occurring. We were just locked up, incarcerated and treated like animals.
If I would have had a CASA when I entered the system, that would have meant me having someone that said, “Charity doesn’t have a history of crime, she doesn’t have a history of petty theft.” I hope they would have said, “Let’s look at her circumstances and what is leading her to stealing underwear.” Maybe they would have learned that we were poor, that we were stealing food and clothing to survive.
There’s no reason for the child to enter the system when there are mechanisms in place to intervene and to connect the families to the resources that exist to support families that really need it, families that are poor. My mother was working multiple jobs at the time, battling breast cancer with mental health symptoms that were highly triggered by going through a divorce.
If I had a CASA, someone who was able to step in and say, “Hey, let’s help these families, let’s not incarcerate her,” I would not have experienced being sexually exploited, I would not have experienced the abuse that I experienced in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. And I probably would have been more connected to my siblings — I was their protector at the time.
In many jurisdictions, CASA volunteers are predominately white and middle class, serving many poor children of color. At a time when some child welfare systems are acknowledging systemic racism, what role should a CASA play in the life of children and their families?
I think it’s no secret that with CASA — and every organization in the child welfare space that is led by white people only — there’s white savior-ism at play, whether they intend for it to happen or not. And this is something that CASA of Los Angeles is very aware of.
We can’t just have a bunch of white folks come in and say, “We’re going to take care of these poor Black and brown families and try to provide the best outcomes we feel are necessary for them based on our perspective.” What should happen instead is that our training, our approach and everything we do should be rooted in the context surrounding the children we’re helping. We have to understand that Black kids and brown kids and Asian kids are not monolithic and that they don’t have the same set of barriers and challenges. If we really want to help a Black kid traversing the child welfare system, we need to understand what it means to be a Black kid or a Hispanic kid growing up in L.A. We can’t come in as white saviors, trying to change children.
But more importantly, my vision is to build our volunteer base, to be more inclusive and more representative of the children we’re serving. That means more Black CASAs, more brown CASAs, more CASAs that come from the exact communities that we’re hoping to serve, CASAs that have experienced the various intersectionalities of oppression that our children have experienced. Hopefully, we can find more CASAs that are former foster youth themselves, that are ready to give back and help these children and show that despite our odds, despite what we went through, we became successful, and you can be successful, too. Imagine a little Black boy having a CASA that’s a Black man, and they can look up to him and say, “Wow, I want to be like this Black lawyer, I want to grow up and be like this Black teacher, these Black doctors, Black post office workers, versus only having other people to look up to that don’t look like you.”
But we also need white CASAs. We need not only allies that are white, we need co-conspirators that are white. Our allies now are people that want to help, but a white CASA that is a co-conspirator means that I am going to insert myself in a way that’s going to protect this child and really understand the needs of this child, not what I think this child needs. That means really fighting for them in a way beyond what we’ve traditionally seen. That’s why white saviors and white supremacy comes in because historically not just CASAs but all organizations have been applying one-size-fits-all solutions for Black and brown people that aren’t rooted in our actual needs. And that’s what has to stop.
How do you hope to get more CASAs from Black and brown communities?
CASA doesn’t have a lot of name recognition outside of the people that already know about it. If you go into the Black and brown communities, if you go to the community-based organizations, a lot of them don’t know that CASA exists. So my goal is to go out into the communities and rely on our elected officials, people that are in positions to serve their communities to use them as platforms and resources to really get the word out to the community.
When it comes to foster youth, there’s so many Black and brown people that want to help somebody, but they just don’t know where to start, they don’t know where to go to help you. So being able to get out there and really put our name out in the community, from a grassroots level on up, and letting them know that this opportunity exists for us to help our children. I guarantee you that people are going to want to step up.
As someone who has personal experience with L.A. County’s foster care system, what do you think CASAs should know?
One of the things we’re going to immediately really focus on day one is making sure that our training is inclusive of not just what we can do for the child, but understanding racism, understanding white supremacy, understanding the fears and anxieties youth might have when they see a white person trying to help them, when they see police officers, understanding the historical context of slavery and of oppression, of mass incarceration and of the foster care system. If our CASAs don’t understand why these systems were created in the first place and that they weren’t created to really address the needs of our communities, then they can’t really go in understanding how to navigate this system that is not created to help young people from Black and brown communities.
Any well-meaning person that’s coming in trying to help foster youth, they’re going to assume that the system is in place to help this child. So when they go and make a recommendation in court, they’re going to think that their recommendation is going to result in a positive outcome for this child. It doesn’t happen that way, and we have to advocate for the child in a whole different way, understanding that the system and the way it exists is not created to really ensure the well-being of this child; it’s created to, quote, protect this child.
And the question is protect this child from what — protect them from their Black parents, who are already deemed unworthy of parenting them? But we have to really ensure that our CASAs, the people training our CASAs and the organization as a whole, really understands what we’re doing and why it’s so important. And if it’s not driven from a racial justice lens, then we’re not going to do our job correctly, no matter how well-meaning and well-intentioned we are.
You mention using the CASA program to help support families and avoid some foster care placements in Los Angeles County, which has one of the highest removal rates in the country, according to an analysis by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. How might that work?
When we come into the picture, sometimes it’s a little too late. CASAs usually start after the child is already in the system. But if we have an opportunity to come in right when the decision is being made on whether this child should be removed from their family, we have an opportunity to really prevent the number of youth that are coming into the foster care system. We have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of this child, understanding that the odds are not in their favor. And in L.A. County, there’s a huge initiative now focusing on prevention. We want to support that.
And being the first Black CEO of CASA LA, the first former foster youth, being part of the Children’s Commission and being embedded in the community and working with several organizations, I have a unique positionality to really forge those relationships that are going to allow us to collectively work together to prevent more and more children from entering the system and make sure that we’re connecting all of the various resources that exist and that are underutilized to support our families.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.