Monday, December 28, 2009

Foster care: More questions about CASA, and the newspaper that didn’t ask them

I've gotten used to the fact that stories about the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program (CASA) almost always are puff pieces, in which reporters almost never check the organization's record.

What record?

The fact that the most comprehensive study ever done of the program, commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that the program's only real accomplishments are to prolong foster care and reduce the chance that children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers; with no improvement in child safety. (Details, and a link to the study, are in this previous Blog post.)

I've gotten used to the fact that such stories, like this one in the San Antonio Express News, never ask if having well-meaning, but overwhelmingly white, middle-class people barge into the lives of overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately minority families to pass judgment upon them might raise issues of racial and class bias.

Instead, in the Express News story, one of those middle-class (and, in this case, childless) volunteers is allowed to sneer at those she judges, branding them "a whole subculture of people for whom children are not their first priority." Is "subculture" really just a euphemism for "people who make me uncomfortable because they're a different race or class"?

But here's something I haven't read before: The other CASA profiled in the story, who is supposed to render an objective judgment concerning who can best take care of a child, winds up taking the child for himself.

In fairness, there is nothing to indicate that he suggested this while he was the child's CASA. According to the story it happened sometime afterwards. And, according to the story, it wasn't the CASA's idea. Rather, the idea is said to have come from the child's caseworker.

But still it raises troubling questions – the kinds reporters are supposed to ask. The story says that the child was taken from his birth mother on grounds of "neglect" – which, of course, can mean anything. Then the CASA stepped in. Presumably, he recommended that the child not be returned to his mother. Then, sometime later, when the man no longer was the child's CASA but had continued to maintain a relationship with him, the caseworker urged him to adopt.

So what's the problem? The message it sends to all the other CASAs: If you recommend against returning this child home, someday, he could be yours. Under such circumstances, shouldn't a newspaper at least ask about conflict of interest, instead of simply extolling the case as a model of CASA in action?