Commentary: Case points to wider concerns in guardian program

Reforms may not be enough to train amateurs to make good decisions in child custody caregiving.

By Richard Wexler

For The Herald

Thanks to The Herald and reporter Noah Haglund for the comprehensive account of the scandal engulfing the Snohomish County Court Appointed Special Advocates (formerly Vollunteer Guardian Ad Litem) program (“Lying, spying and destroying evidence spur guardian reforms,” The Herald, Aug. 18).

In some ways, the most damning revelation about the program isn’t that its staff and volunteers as the story put it, “repeatedly crossed legal and ethical lines.” It’s not the “lying, spying, [and] withholding and destroying evidence” that the trial judge found “pervasive and egregious.”

The most telling revelation comes in the form of one step that the Snohomish County Superior Court felt the need to take in order to claim it was “fixing” the program.

(The whole idea that the court, which an appellate court found to be “a biased tribunal” can fix its own program is a stretch. It’s like saying the chickens are safe now because the foxes have doubled the guard on the chicken coop.)

In any event, the story explains, one of the alleged fixes is: “They increased training to, among other things, stress honesty, truthfulness and the correct way to handle documents.”

The people who work at Snohomish CASA, I am sure, are typically no better or worse than the general run of humanity. Most do the work with the best of intentions. But most of us already know we’re supposed to be honest and truthful. What does it say about the CASA model that it can so compromise the ethics of good people that they actually need training to know they’re supposed to be honest and truthful?

I think the answer can be found in a recent ad slogan put forth by the National CASA Association, of which the Snohomish County program is a member. Using sensational cases that bear little resemblance to the norm, the ad features CASAs declaring: “I am for the child.” The implication, of course, is that everyone else is indifferent at best, or at worst they are for those parents, all of whom are assumed to be sick at best, evil at worst. (Some are both, most are neither.)

What a balm to the ego to be told you’re all that stands between an innocent child and the horrors of abuse! Combine that kind of power with the secrecy that surrounds everything in child welfare and it’s almost inevitable that an ends-justify-the-means mentality can take over. If I alone am “for the child” what’s wrong with bending a few rules?

That arrogance is compounded by how the CASA model worsens the inherent racial and class biases in child welfare.

Who can afford to be a CASA? Someone with enough money to spare the time. That skews the volunteer pool toward white and middle class people. As The Herald story points out, CASAs are not required to have qualifications in law or social work. Indeed, as a law review article put it, they are presumed qualified only because they are white and middle class.

These typically white, middle-class amateurs are sent out to pass judgment on families who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately families of color. Often these families are caught up in the system precisely because their poverty is confused with neglect.

At its worst, this means CASAs include a former volunteer who calls the families he investigated “felons” “junkies” and “dumb as dirt.” In another post he declared that “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.”

Of course most CASAs are not racists. But what does it say about the Snohomish program that this volunteer says he was there for 20 years? How many children had their stays in foster care prolonged or their rights to their parents terminated based on his advice?

But most damning of all: CASA doesn’t work. A massive study, commissioned by the National CASA Association itself found that the program’s only accomplishments were to prolong foster care and make it less likely children will be placed with relatives instead of strangers. And when a Snohomish CASA program director did a study of the Snohomish program, she too found no actual evidence that the program did any good.

The problems in CASA, in Snohomish County and nationwide, go much deeper than a single case. The entire CASA model is, as that law review article put it “an exercise of white supremacy.”

CASAs may be able to perform a useful role as mentors to foster children. But they should not be allowed to pass judgment on those children’s families.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org.

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