News and Information from the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association

Program Spotlight

Equity Efforts Around the US

Map showing National CASA regions with faces of writers from each region


Program Spotlight normally features a full-page story about one CASA or GAL program’s successful efforts to expand its reach or improve its effectiveness. In this issue, we thought it would be useful to look at equity-related initiatives of member programs around the country. The seven organizations featured below are themselves diverse in many ways, including staff size and community demographics. Included are the 2010 winner of the National CASA Inclusion Award and representatives of each of our six regions.

Together, these seven CASA programs illustrate how even modest efforts to create an inclusive environment and expand diversity of volunteers can pay off in terms of equity for children in care.

Winner of 2010 National CASA Association Inclusion Award

Why I Fight for Equity in New Orleans

Dellona D. Davis
Executive Director
CASA New Orleans, LA

I am motivated to address equity because we must ensure that outcomes for the children we serve as Court Appointed Special Advocates are not predicted by race, poverty or lack of access to adequate community resources. As a results-driven individual who considers it an opportunity to serve children in the foster care system, I was pushed to take action when I realized the huge disproportionality of children of color in care and the fact that our children were facing disparities based on race and LGBTQ orientation.

One specific tactic I used was to engage and encourage our program’s staff and volunteers to pursue reducing disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system as a top priority. This was done through the use of courageous conversations, as defined by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton in their book Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. As advocates for children, the staff and volunteers use the four tenets of courageous conversations: 1) speak our truth, 2) expect and accept non-closure, 3) experience discomfort and 4) stay engaged. Everyone at CASA New Orleans is expected to confront institutional and individual issues that perpetuate disproportionality.

Incorporating inclusiveness has changed the culture of our program and increased the quality of advocacy. Recruitment of diverse volunteers has increased because we are seen as an inclusive agency. Our staff and volunteers identify theories about the causes of racial disproportionality as well as disparate treatment in the child welfare system and then address them consistently to ensure that the needs of all children are equitably and fairly met. CASA New Orleans’s commitment to addressing equity has assisted us in understanding and better serving the children we encounter every day.

Dellona Davis

Western Region

Arizona’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Journey—The Beginning

Bonnie Marcus
Program Manager
CASA of Arizona

In 2009, I attended a two-day workshop offered to state directors by National CASA. I had no idea what this training was—only that National CASA had identified it as an important component of diversity work. I came to learn the power of Knowing Who You Are (KWYA), a curriculum developed by Casey Family Programs that asks participants to explore their connection to their own racial and ethnic identities, with a goal of enabling us to be important catalysts in helping children in care maintain their own.

Too often in foster care, children lose the part of themselves that connected them to their history, the “who am I?” part that many of us take for granted. While intellectually I have always grasped the inequities in our systems, I had never thought about this particular personal loss that our children suffer when they are taken from their biological families. Thus began CASA of Arizona’s journey to explore where we, as individuals and as CASA programs, can affect how children feel about themselves—and perhaps affect the racial disparity that exists in our systems.

As a state office, we discussed at length what kind of involvement we should have with this topic. Was this a matter for local programs to deal with on their own? What kind of leadership could we offer? In the end, we decided to approach this on a statewide level, and that meant beginning dialogue with our 15 county programs on a topic that can be sensitive and challenging.

We set up five regional meetings over three months and asked all program staff to attend. We traveled to the programs and reviewed statistics. We talked about working with individual children. We discussed the benefits and challenges of this work. And most importantly, we discussed what diversity and inclusiveness mean. Discussion was lively and fascinating as we delved into issues that bring about myriad opinions. But in an open and safe atmosphere, we learned a lot about our staff’s concerns, fears and excitement for tackling a statewide diversity and inclusiveness project. These discussions were the beginning of ongoing communication among the state office and the local programs as well as a new Diversity and Inclusiveness Committee that will lead us into the future.

Concurrent with these regional meetings, CASA of Arizona began collaborating with Casey Family Programs, Child Protective Services and National CASA to facilitate training for all CASA staff in KWYA. With a grant from the Governor’s Office and wonderful collaboration with our Court Improvement Program, we are presenting the KWYA workshop to county teams in five regions of the state. We are excited that the teams are made up of not only CASA staff but also the presiding juvenile court judge and Child Protective Services as well as representatives from behavioral health, juvenile probation and education. Our goal is to create champions and system teams in each county that will embrace the issues surrounding the racial and ethnic identity of children as well as the disparity that exists across our systems.

Bonnie Marcus

Mountain Plains Region

Austin Dedicates a Staff Position to Support Equity

Laura D. Wolf, JD
Executive Director
CASA of Travis County
Austin, TX

In our community, both Child Protective Services and our judges are focused on disproportionality. We decided that we wanted to be a genuine partner with them on this issue. Furthermore, we recognized that we could not effectively advocate in the best interest of children of color if we did not understand the children’s needs, their cultures and the institutional biases that may have brought them into the state’s care in the first place.

Our staff began by participating in Undoing Racism workshops. As more staff went through this training, we were more motivated to ask ourselves hard questions about our own work and advocacy. Additionally, like many CASA programs, we have struggled to build a diverse volunteer base that would more closely reflect the demographics of the children we serve.

To focus our efforts and follow through on our good intentions, we created a new staff position: a community outreach liaison. This liaison is part of our volunteer recruitment team and focuses on building relationships within the African American and Hispanic communities, in particular. Additionally, this position acts as our lead—along with me—on disproportionality. She serves on the local Disproportionality Advisory Board and related committees and workgroups, building relationships with both CPS and community groups.

We created this position less than a year ago, but we are already seeing improvements in volunteer recruitment—more diversity among our new volunteers—as well as in our image in the African American and Hispanic communities. In addition, we are raising the awareness and education of our staff and volunteers on issues of equity for children in foster care by providing trainings and facilitated discussions, staff retreats, etc. The diversity of our staff and board are also improving.

With continued focus and the benefit of a staff position dedicated to these efforts, we believe that we will see a more inclusive organizational culture and a volunteer pool more reflective of our community. Ultimately, we want to ensure that CASA of Travis County is working to end disproportionality and is not inadvertently doing anything to maintain or exacerbate inequitable outcomes for children of color.

Laura Wolf

Southern Gulf Region

Even a Miami Latina Had Something to Learn About Diversity

Sonia L. Ferrer
Circuit Director
Guardian Ad Litem Program—11th Judicial Circuit
Miami, FL (winner of 2009 National CASA Association Inclusion Award)

In 2007, my program was one of five selected by National CASA to participate in an inclusion and diversity initiative. Coming from Miami, “the melting pot Mecca” of the nation, we thought that we were as diverse a program as one could ever be. As we started to go through the process, we learned all too quickly that we were not.

During this period, I attended National CASA’s annual conference in Orlando, where I heard the personal testimony of an incredible young lady named Lupe Tovar. Lupe may be reading this piece today, and I have never shared with her the impact that her story had on me.

Lupe grew up in foster care, always feeling like there was a part of her missing. While in care, she was placed in many foster homes. Some were Caucasian families, others were African American families, but never a Hispanic family. She never learned about her roots, her culture, her customs or her heritage. Lupe suffered the loss of her culture. The only culture that she could identify with was that of foster care culture. So she decided that when she went on to college, she would join a Hispanic/Latina sorority. After going through the sorority application process, Lupe received a letter of denial. The reason she was denied membership? Although she was Latina, she could not speak any Spanish.

Being a Latina myself, Lupe’s story greatly impacted me and made me realize that not only do the children we represent lose their families, their schools and their friends, they also often lose their cultural identity. If we do not advocate to ensure that the children we represent are not losing their cultural identity, we are doing them a disservice.

I knew that we needed to do something right away, so we started with a very simple tool. We added a section to all of our court reports called “Cultural Activities.” When our volunteers represent a child who is not culturally placed (not with a family of the same culture), we ensure that the child is involved in some sort of cultural activity. Whether it’s participating in a play at school during Black History Month for an African American child, or attending a Hispanic heritage festival during Hispanic Heritage Month for a Hispanic/Latino child, they need these connections. This information must now be captured on every single report for these children.

At the beginning, some of my staff may have seen this as just one more thing to do. However, everyone knew that I was passionate about equity and that this change needed to be made. Today, keeping these activities top of mind is a way of life for everyone in our program. I’m amazed at the courageous conversations that I hear constantly about cultural issues that we advocate for on our cases.

Sonia Ferrer

Midwest Region

Chicago CASA Program’s Journey Toward Equity

Lanetta Haynes Turner, Esq.
Executive Director
CASA of Cook County
Chicago, IL

CASA of Cook County began its journey of addressing equity in 2006 while I was still on our board of directors. Although the board talked about the importance of diversity, we did not make a commitment to advance our efforts until National CASA invited us to participate in a volunteer diversity strategy.

As a board member and an African American woman who truly understood the importance of diversity, I must admit that it was difficult at times for me to “fight the good fight” when there were so many other responsibilities that needed to be fulfilled. The turning point for me came when I asked myself one simple question: Could your priorities be reached quicker and more efficiently if you had a broader, more diverse audience helping you achieve your goals? The answer for CASA of Cook County was yes, and we have made diversity and inclusiveness the building blocks for a stable foundation.

By the time we started the diversity initiative, I had transitioned from board member to executive director. I knew that not everyone within our organization would place the same importance on equity as I did. Understanding that it would take time to engage the reluctant, I focused my efforts on establishing a diverse staff. I made sure that I was a part of every hiring decision and that all job announcements were distributed within the communities we wanted representation from—not just the traditional venues. This tactic immediately widened our pool of candidates and helped us become a more diverse staff over time.

Today, CASA of Cook County has been able to increase its number of new African American volunteers by more than 10%. And our staff has become a group of diverse, talented individuals committed to sharing their knowledge and ensuring that inequity is addressed whenever necessary.

Lanetta Haynes

Northeast Region

Newark Uses Data to Fight Disproportionality

Karen L. Burns
Executive Director
Essex County CASA
Newark, NJ

With 80% of the children served by our program being African American and their prevalence in our county population at only 42%, we know all too well the reality of disproportional representation of children of color in foster care. Fortunately, the Essex Vicinage is one of the model courts associated with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). So when the NCJFCJ adopted eliminating disproportionality as a mandatory model court goal two years ago, we were poised to jump into a cross-system solution. As the task is enormous, both research and education are needed to inform our long-term solutions.

Our Model Court Disproportionality Committee is the official work team. The wheels of research turn slowly, but with deliberate intention we believe we can gather the data we need to analyze and act upon. The committee built a logic model using the NCJFCJ’s court performance measures of safety, permanency, due process and timeliness. The team applied these four measures to structure goals to reduce disproportionality. We identified inputs we needed and activities to get usable case-level race and ethnicity data at court process decision points.

We are still in the labor-intensive process of gathering data from both the court’s and the child welfare system’s databases. The court measures we think we can deploy for disproportionality reduction are permanency (time to legal permanency, reentry into care and multiple placements) and timeliness (expeditious processing of litigation). For cases involving reentry after case closure, we can use due process and safety court measures. We believe that when we know at which specific decision points Essex overrepresentation occurs, we will be able to formulate plans to address the problem. We expect these plans to include reassessing existing activities and processes, training, advocating for increased services and expanding prevention resources.

The roadmap to “solving” disproportionality is very slow, intentional and not for the faint-hearted. But our judges and child welfare system partners have begun in earnest. We now have an organizing rubric to examine and address a condition that built up over decades.

Karen Burns

Mid-Atlantic Region

Seeking Equity for Maryland’s LGBTQ Youth in Care

Ann Marie Foley Binsner
Executive Director
CASA of Prince George’s County
Hyattsville, MD

For several years, our CASA program received one complaint after another regarding the way lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth were being treated while they were in care. We heard about young people being thrown out of group homes, foster parents bringing youth to church so the congregation could pray over them and therapists who suggested ways that the child could “turn straight.” With each new incident, we struggled with what to do, but we had no idea how to address the root of the problem.

Working in a socially conservative community, we hesitated to bring our concerns to the leadership at the local Department of Social Services because we were not confident that we would receive support. We were surprised to learn that they shared our outrage and were eager to work together to improve services for our youth. We began our partnership with joint training for our CASA volunteers and the child welfare staff. This helped us see that there were many young people who needed services and support in the county. Unfortunately, we also found that there was a huge gap in both available services and experienced service providers.

To address these needs, we created the Prince George’s County LGBTQ Youth Task Force, a coalition of state and local government personnel, youth advocates and private citizens. We committed ourselves to improving community planning, coordination of strategies and the expansion of advocacy to ensure positive outcomes for LGBTQ youth. The task force set goals that addressed the areas of greatest concern. Since our initial meeting more than three years ago, we have provided training to hundreds of service providers, created a local resource directory of services available to LGBTQ youth and shared data that resulted in new policies at the state and local levels. Together, we are creating the supports that our youth need in order to achieve their full potential.

Ann Marie Foley Binsner

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