Sunday, November 9, 2008

UPDATED, NOV 10 2008 AND NOV. 8, 2009: A CASA chapter shows its true colors

Reader advisory: This post contains quotes that include some uses of vulgar slang. Reader discretion is advised.

There may be no more sacred cow in all of child welfare than the Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program. Under this program, volunteers are assigned to spend a few hours a month on one or two child welfare cases, talking to all parties and then telling the judge what the volunteer thinks would be best for the child.

I collected the gooey feature stories that turn up in almost every newspaper about CASA for a while, until I ran out of file space. In almost every one, the program is praised to the skies and all of its self-promotional material is accepted without question. And CASA itself loves to brag about how much influence the volunteers have over juvenile court judges when those judges decide if a child will be placed in foster care, whether a child will remain there, and where that child will go.

In fact, the CASA model creates enormous potential for bias. Who can be a CASA? Certainly not a poor person working two jobs, or someone who has to work seven days a week; they don't have the time. No, a CASA volunteer is most likely to have lots of time on his or her hands. And that means CASA volunteers are likely to be disproportionately affluent and disproportionately white (and, in fact, 90 percent of CASA volunteers are white). Children who enter the child welfare system, of course, are neither.

So, good intentions notwithstanding – and like almost everyone in child welfare, most CASA volunteers do, indeed, mean well – the potential for racial and class bias is obvious. So it should come as no surprise that the largest, most comprehensive study of CASA ever done – a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself - produced some truly alarming findings. I'll get to those below. But first, a case in point.

I first learned about this through a very brief item in the excellent trade journal Youth Today, after which I checked the local newspaper and a local news website.

The story is about the CASA chapter in Arkansas City, Kansas, about an hour from Wichita. Every year, their big annual fundraiser is the Men in Tights drag queen contest. No problem there. This year, the winner was the mayor of Arkansas City, Mel Kuhn. He won both the talent competition and the overall Miss CASA title. Still no problem, it's not as if they played favorites and gave him the prize just because he's the mayor.

The problem is the costume that won Mayor Kuhn the coveted Miss CASA title: He dressed up as a woman he named "Smellishis Poon." The "surname" is, in the words of the Arkansas City Traveler "graphic slang for a female private part." So is the name the mayor chose for his back up dancers. They were called the "Red Hot Puntangs." Oh, and one more thing: The mayor did his act made up in blackface.

The mayor initially defended his performance. "All this PC is b-------," the mayor/Miss CASA said. "We go around walking on eggshells all the time, we don't get anything done." But after a meeting with officials of the Wichita Branch of the NAACP, the Mayor/Miss CASA changed his mind and offered what sounds like a sincere apology.

From CASA, however, there has been only one of those non-apology apologies, with the executive director of the Arkansas City CASA program, who earlier gave the mayor's performance rave reviews, later telling The Wichita Eagle that "We're sorry that anyone was offended at this show."

But the Mayor/Miss CASA says the local CASA chapter knew exactly what he planned to do beforehand. According to the Traveler:

He said he ran everything he planned by CASA officials, and that the audience found it all hilarious. "I didn't spring anything on anybody, he said.

After the performance, the local CASA executive director, Linda Groth, did say she was "mortified" by the name the Mayor chose – after a reporter told her what "poon" meant. But other than that, she thought the performance was just fine. She told a local website, The News Cow, (because Arkansas City is in Cowley County, that's why):

"The part of his act I felt was excellent was the dancing. It was good dancing. The back-up singers were gorgeous and could probably back up any professional. It was a pretty professional little act. The audience loved it. The judges must have liked it. We may change some things. We may not. We certainly don't want to offend anybody."

It's unfortunate that anyone is upset. Kuhn wanted to put on a good show and worked hard, according to Groth. Other people saw the program but no one commented on his character's name.

As for the blackface, Groth told the Traveler she didn't think the mayor was trying to portray a different race: "It wasn't black black," she said. "It was all really just tan." (Readers can judge for themselves by having a look at the photos here and here. )

Groth went on to give the Mayor/Miss CASA another rave review, praising all the time Kuhn took to prepare and noting that "the judges and the audience in general seemed very impressed."

Most of the criticism has been directed at the mayor. But that misses the point. The real issue is this: How much harm is being done to impoverished children, especially minority children, by placing their fate in the hands of people who can watch a man dress up in blackface under the name of Smellishis Poon – and see no problem with any of it? What kind of child welfare system lets such astonishingly insensitive white people sit in judgment of overwhelmingly poor disproportionately black families? And where was the National CASA Association while all this is going on? I am aware of no condemnation of the Arkansas City chapter by the national group; certainly there is nothing on National CASA's website about it. Perhaps they don't know about it, though it happened a month ago.

UPDATE, NOV. 10: A p.r. person for National CASA contacted NCCPR this evening by e-mail to say that "Immediately after being made aware of the incident, National CASA contacted the local Arkansas City CASA program, which had sponsored the event. We also contacted the Kansas State CASA program, the office of Mayor Kuhn, and Kevin Myles, the President of the Wichita Branch of NAACP."

The p.r. person says National CASA's efforts led to a more formal apology from the the local chapter. He cited this wire service story, but the story is unclear as to whether the relevant "press release" came from National CASA or the local chapter. The local newspaper story on which the wire account is based makes clear that, after a conference call involving the NAACP, the local chapter and National CASA, the local chapter issued the press release containing the apology. If National CASA has issued its own formal public statement on this matter, I still haven't been able to find it.

None of this, of course, addresses the larger issue of how a CASA chapter could have allowed this performance in the first place, and the rave review the head of the CASA chapter gave the mayor's performance before she was contacted by the national organization.

CASA also got the Wichita NAACP to let them off the hook; another testament to CASA's sacred cow status. I hope the Wichita NAACP will take a closer look, starting with the study cited below:

It would be one thing if this were an isolated problem – a local chapter that had gone rogue. But the disturbing data from that national study I mentioned suggest that, again, good intentions notwithstanding, racial bias permeates CASA.

For starters, 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 in general as the organization's p.r. might lead one to believe. CASA volunteers reported spending an average of only 4.3 hours per month on cases involving white children, and only 2.67 hours per month on cases involving Black children).

Worse, 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.

A Youth Today columnist aptly summed up the findings this way:

"The more rigorous evaluation … not only challenged the effectiveness of the court volunteers' services, but suggested that they spend little time on cases, particularly those of black children, and are associated with more removals from the home and fewer efforts to reunite children with parents or relatives."

Worse still, 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.)

If you doubt any of this, please go see the study for yourself on the National CASA website – if you can find it. [UPDATE, NOV 8, 2009: THE LINK IN THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE NO LONGER WORKS. LOOKS LIKE CASA HAS REMOVED THE FULL STUDY FROM ITS WEBSITE ENTIRELY. I'M SURE GLAD I DOWNLOADED BY OWN COPY.] Actually, I'd better give you the direct link, since it's not on the main website at all, instead it's buried on a second site which, while publicly accessible, appears to be primarily for CASAs themselves. One can certainly understand why they'd rather people not see it.

CASA did not exactly spread the word about this study when it was published. But Youth Today learned about it, and the result was one of the few clear-eyed assessments ever done of the program, an excellent front-page news story in the July/August, 2004 issue which was available on an affiliated website, but now, alas, is available only on their own site by subscription.

Among other things, the news story concluded that CASA's attempts to spin the study's findings "can border on duplicity."

I wonder how National CASA will spin the Miss CASA contest, and what that contest may say about the racial attitudes of CASA volunteers in Arkansas City? It'll be hard to top that line about "it was all really just tan." (See update above for CASAs response).