Former Juvenile Court Judge Len Edwards, a favorite on the child welfare conference circuit, is upset about a column I wrote on March 8. The column discussed an article in the City University of New York Law Review that calls that most sacred cow in child welfare, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), “an exercise of white supremacy.”
CASA is the program in which minimally trained volunteers, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, are assigned to families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately nonwhite. Then they tell judges if the children should be taken from those families, sometimes forever. In more than 60 percent of cases, according to a study discussed in more detail below, judges rubber-stamp every single recommendation these amateurs make.
Edwards appears to be most upset about two words in the Law Review article: white supremacy. In a comment posted below the column,* he says that my “highlighting a law review article that uses ‘white supremacy’ in the title [sic] is regrettable.” He comes back to this theme at the end of his comment, complaining that my “supporting the law review article with its inflammatory language is harmful as it may simply discourage volunteers to participate in a valuable program.”
In fact, the Law Review article does not use “white supremacy” in the title. I used it in the headline for my column. The Law Review article does, however, use the term in the text.
The first use of the term comes in response to a comment by a judge who called CASA “a gift, the gift of an important person in a child’s life.” The authors respond by writing the following:
However kindly intentioned their work may be, this paper posits that CASAs essentially give voice to white supremacy — the same white supremacy that permeates the system as a whole and that allows us to so easily accept the idea that children in the child welfare system actually require the “gift” of a CASA, and do not already have an abundance of “important people” in their lives.
Perhaps Edwards is so offended because the judge who called CASA a gift was – Len Edwards.
Toward an Honest Discussion of Race
But the offense he takes to this column is revealing on another level. How in the world are we supposed to have an honest discussion of race in this country without using the words “white supremacy”? How can anyone, especially a former judge, dismiss a law review article out-of-hand just for using the term? How is it that, in child welfare, “white supremacy” is the hate that dare not speak its name?
This is one more example of the extent to which, unlike almost any other field, much of child welfare is “in denial” – to use a favorite phrase in the field – about the role that racial bias plays in decision-making.
If a black man and a while man try to hail a taxi, does anyone really doubt who is more likely to get the cab? If a black man and a white man walk into a store, does anyone doubt who is more likely to be followed around by store security? Even in the hard sciences, where objectivity theoretically is at its height, black scholars have more trouble getting research grants.
And of course, there’s law enforcement, where bias is so apparent that the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police apologized last year to the African-American community for police treatment of people of color.
CASA and Child Welfare Exceptionalism
Yet in child welfare, despite abundant evidence of racial bias over and above the class bias that permeates the system, there is an entire coterie proclaiming that child welfare is The Great Exception. The people in this one field supposedly are so wonderful that racism magically ends at the child welfare agency door, a notion eagerly lapped up by credulous journalists. And now, we have a white, middle-class judge condemning lawyers for even using the phrase “white supremacy” in a law review article.
Edwards also disputes that great big study of CASA, which found that it does nothing to improve child safety, prolongs foster care, and makes it less likely children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers. But he offers no data in rebuttal, only anecdotes.
That’s nothing new. CASA never has been willing to face up to this study. As Youth Today explained when the study became public, it was not commissioned in the interest of objective scholarship. CASA commissioned it to prove how wonderful CASA is. When the results didn’t confirm that, Youth Today reported,
National CASA has boasted about the parts of the study it liked, while saying the findings that could be considered critical are questionable and in need of further study. This might be a natural organizational reaction, but it can border on duplicity.
So CASA is in denial about the study findings, just as the larger field of child welfare is in denial about white supremacy. Sounds like the child welfare field needs to get into “counseling” to face up to all that denial.
But there is one way Edwards could help a lot. He could use his influence at National CASA to get them to look into what’s going on in the Volunteer Guardian Ad Litem program in Snohomish County, Washington, a program accredited by National CASA. I hope he considers behavior in the program that a judge there termed “pervasive and egregious” misconduct to be at least as offensive as seeing the words “white supremacy” in a law review.