Tuesday, August 1, 2017

#CASAsoWhite: A Former CASA on the Parents He Dealt With: “Felons,” “Junkies,” “Dumb as Dirt”

He says he spent 20 years in the same program that was excoriated by a judge for  “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and  “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.

Most of the time on this blog I comment on the work of others, whether it's research or journalism. Today, however, the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog breaks some news. No news organization in Washington State or elsewhere has previously reported on the disturbing comments of a former CASA volunteer in that state discussed below. And only KING-TV has reported on the other issues concerning the Snohomish County CASA program.

As Merlin Sprague tells the story, it all began in the mid-1980s when he tried to volunteer for a Big Brothers program in Snohomish County, Washington. He was rejected.  Or, as he puts it “the pecksniffs and [sic] Big Siblings can be excessively picky” and “the shrink who evaluated my suitability found I didn’t have sufficient respect for authority.” 

But, he said, the “shrink” suggested an alternative. “She suggested I volunteer for the county’s [Volunteer] Guardian ad Litem program (a.k.a. CASA, or Court-Appointed Special Advocate).”

He says that after the program accepted him he remained a Volunteer Guardian ad litem (VGAL) – in other words, a CASA - for 20 years.

CASAs are minimally-trained amateurs, overwhelmingly white and middle-class, who are sent out to investigate overwhelmingly poor disproportionately nonwhite families. Then they recommend to the judge whether the children should be separated from those families, sometimes forever. Judges typically take the advice. 

The most comprehensive study ever done of the program, a study commissioned by the National CASA Association itself, found that it does nothing to make children safer. The study also found that CASA prolongs foster care and reduces the chances children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers.

One CASA program saw no problem when a performer at a fundraiser dressed in blackface, another fell apart as soon as it had to confront issues of race. A law review article called CASA “an exercise of white supremacy.”  And now, meet Merlin Sprague:

In a blog post in January, the man who says he spent 20 years telling judges what they should do about families told the world what he thinks of those families. He wrote:

All of us in programs like the Guardians ad Litem see that:
The vast preponderance of children who are abused and neglected come from impoverished parents.
The parents are unschooled and ignorant and are satisfied with the situation. This, of course, explains the poverty.
Many parents are of low IQ.  Like one of my colleagues said, “They’re as dumb as dirt”.
Over 50% of the parents are felons and junkies who are incapable of looking after their own selves, let alone their children. Of the remaining 50%, most are simply felons and junkies who haven’t yet been caught.  This includes booze and tobacco.

Merlin’s Modest Proposal

But Sprague does have a solution:

Give each poor person, man or woman, whither [sic] or not they’ve been dragged into the child welfare system, $20,000, cash money, to be surgically sterilized.

It’s a bargain, Sprague tells us, compared to the cost of raising the children who, under this plan,  won’t be born. And he adds,  

this $20,000 will not prevent the conception and birth of just one child, it will prevent the conception and birth of many as these kinds of people breed like flies.

But, says Sprague, that’s not all:

As this cohort of parents are mostly drunks and junkies, $20,000 will buy all the booze and dope they could ever want.  Consequently, there will be many overindulgences which will result in death, further reducing the numbers of people on welfare.

One can only hope that none of the families with whom Sprague dealt was Muslim – because in another post he writes that Islam is:

… a throw-back to the Stone Age when men put bones through their noses and painted themselves blue.  Islam has the morals, ethics and principles of an insect.  We must use every method at our disposal to stamp it out before it stamps us out.

Judge Anita Farris
Of course, this is just one volunteer in one CASA program. But this is the same program in which Snohomish County Judge Anita Farris found that another volunteer “infiltrated” a listserv maintained by parental defense attorneys.  It’s also the program the samejudge blasted for “the blatant withholding and destruction of evidence and … rampant continuing lying …” and for “pervasive and egregious” misconduct.

When I asked the Snohomish County VGAL program if anyone there had any comment on Sprague’s views, and on why he was accepted as a volunteer and allowed to remain a volunteer for many years, this was the entire response, in an email from Public Information & Disclosure Officer Brian Lewis: “The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not reflect the view of Snohomish County Superior Court or any of its services programs.” 

Conflicts of Interest

For her part Judge Farris is unlikely to be issuing any more rulings concerning the program.  That’s because of how the program is organized – or at least how it now says it’s organized.

CASA programs take a variety of organizational forms. But since its establishment in 1979, the one in Snohomish County has been run directly by the county court system itself.  Late last year, in legal papers, the program stopped calling itself the VGAL program. Instead it started referring to itself as “the Court.” 

But how can a judge of any given court rule on alleged misconduct when the accused is – the court itself?  Judge Farris concluded she can’t. So she recused herself. A judge from another county will have to decide a whole slew of issues growing out of the case that exposed the alleged misconduct.

This issue has arisen at least once before. Florida took its CASA program (also called a GAL program in that state) away from the courts after a legislative report concluded that the arrangement created “actual and perceived conflicts of interest.”

That does leave one intriguing question: If, all along, the Snohomish County VGAL program was actually the court itself, did that program have an unfair advantage in every case in which it intervened?  Do hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases need to be reopened?

If so, it might be a good idea to start with the cases handled by Merlin Sprague.