The protests and calls for action over the past weeks are focused on centuries of deep-rooted racism and violence in law enforcement that reached a boiling point after the back-to-back murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. CASA/LA stands firmly with the movement to hold law enforcement accountable, protect Black lives, and invest in non-punitive, community-based alternatives to policing. This work is personal to us, as many of the youth and young adults we serve have had unfortunate, traumatic and biased interactions with police based on their race, their developmental disabilities, and on stigma based on their status as “kids in foster care.” Two of our main core values at CASA/LA are Deep Love and Justice. We want to listen, follow, and where appropriate, lead, a movement for an equitable society, especially for the children and families we serve. Many of our staff members, volunteers, and youth have been involved in the protests (in the streets, in the courtrooms, in their conversations, and through their donations) understanding that we belong in this movement.
We know, though, that law enforcement is definitely not the only place where we need to push for systemic changes to combat a history of racism that has disproportionally hurt Black families. The government systems in which CASA/LA’s work is most directly involved, child welfare (foster care), the juvenile justice system, and other social services agencies including mental health, housing, employment, and more, also need attention to uproot institutional racism.
Racial disparities and racism in the child welfare system:
The foster care, or child welfare, system, is a perfect example. Over 24% of children in foster care in LA County are Black (and over 35% of the kids served by CASA/LA), but Black children represent less than 8% of the population in LA County.
Why the disparity? Multiple reasons:
- History of institutional racism that particularly impacts Black and Indigenous families. Many people say that the child welfare system is “broken” but in the case of institutional racism it is working precisely as it was built, despite decades of efforts to change it. Policies including tearing Native kids away from their families to erase their language and culture and the intentional use of racist policies resulting from the crack/cocaine epidemic and the “war on drugs” may be in the past, the echoes of those policies have not fully been rooted out.
- While many reforms have been enacted, training instituted, and the staff of child welfare agencies and the judiciary is more reflective of the population now, implicit bias and straight-up racism remains within the hearts, minds, and practices of people with the power to take children away from their families. Outside of outright murder and violence committed by law enforcement that has dominated the headlines this month, it is difficult to imagine an act more traumatizing than taking a person’s child away from them.
- The disparities also point to links between the child welfare/foster care system and other systems that lead families directly into the child welfare system. Most pointedly, mass incarceration, which keeps people physically from being able to care for their children, but also discrimination in and an overall lack of adequate housing that keeps people from being able to provide a safe home for their children, and racial disparities in access to physical and mental health care that would help parents to be able to safely care for their children.
CASA/LA – Actively working to become an anti-racist organization
- CASA/LA has actively participated in LA County’s Elimination of Racial Disparities and Discrimination committee since 2005 and we have had cultural awareness and anti-bias components to our training and recruiting since before then.
- In 2017, CASA/LA decided to take a much more formal and comprehensive step, implementing an Anti-Racism Initiative focused on identifying how we can change internally to be part of the larger solution, begin the process of formally rooting out racism from our own organization, and work to use our voices and resources to ensure greater racial equity in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems as a whole. This is a long-term plan that was approved by the Board of Directors and includes the following:
- Training: We are actively training staff and volunteers to be anti-racist and examine our own biases. This includes professional development for staff facilitated by internal and external experts, a complete overhaul of our volunteer training curriculum, and multiple in-service training opportunities for volunteers. We are currently working to increase the frequency and quality of those trainings and to include more volunteers and board members.
- Evaluation: We are constantly evaluating and changing our recruitment, training, and advocacy, strategies to ensure they align with our anti-racist core values although we still have a long way to go. We have expanded our recruitment to specifically reach out to and welcome BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) to become CASA volunteers and we added specific language to our application and interview process about our anti-racism policy that makes it clear where we stand. This is long-term work, and it requires dedication, humility, change, investment, and continual learning.
- Recruitment/Retention: We are working to ensure that the demographics of our team of staff at all levels, CASA volunteers, and board members better reflect the community we serve. We have made good strides in overall demographics but staff leadership of the organization and leadership of the board continues to be predominantly white and we must continue to actively address this and change it.
- Language/Messaging: We are checking all of our languages and messaging against our core values and anti-racism pledge to ensure it is “people first” and does not contribute to implicit or explicit bias.
- Leadership: In 2018, we created two on-going internal committees specifically to address racism:
- CASA Anti-Racism Committee (CARI) which is led by and includes only staff of color and provides a safe place where the committee processes underlying issues related to racism within the organization. CARI addresses the elemental factors that need to be addressed in order to build a more equitable CASA/LA.
- Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) which includes a diverse group of staff including top leadership and addresses immediate concerns, receives complaints and enacts change based on the recommendations of CARI.
- Fundraising: We are committed to a regular review of our funding sources to ensure that we are not indirectly or unintentionally promoting racism through the acceptance of funds from sources that compromise our values. We have also addressed the way we tell our children and youth’s stories to ensure they are respectful and not exploitative.
At the end of the day, CASA/LA has one mission, to ensure that children in foster care have the opportunity to thrive. That mission cannot be accomplished until our children live in a world that is equitable and just. We owe it to them to work until that happens.