However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs

20 CUNY L. Rev. 23, March 2017

54 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2017 Last revised: 3 Mar 2017

See all articles by Amy Mulzer

Amy Mulzer


Tara Urs

King County Department of Public Defense

Date Written: February 27, 2017


The question of racial disproportionality in the child welfare system has, in recent years, generated a heated debate within the relatively small world of child welfare policy and scholarship. This paper is focused on that same question from a different angle. Rather than examining the disproportionately bad outcomes experienced by Black and Native American children, this paper looks at the system itself, and in particular, one central feature of child welfare decision-making in many parts of the country: volunteer child advocates. Volunteer child advocates, or “CASAs” (Court Appointed Special Advocates), are lay volunteer guardians ad litem appointed by the family court to represent the “best interests” of children who enter the child welfare system. This paper turns attention away from discussions of the race and economic poverty of the families most affected by the system, and instead looks at the impact of the race and privilege of these volunteer child advocates on child welfare decision-making. The unexamined praise that CASAs receive deserves a more thorough assessment. There is reason to question the power that CASAs have been given to influence the course of children’s lives, and even more reason to question the unhesitating acceptance of this state of affairs by the majority of those working within the system. Why does the legal system assume that a group of volunteers — mostly middle-class white women — will make better decisions for a low-income child of color than her own family, community, or the child herself could make? What is it about CASAs that makes them not only acceptable, but practically untouchable? 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.

Keywords: foster care, child welfare, child protection, child neglect, race, structural racism, racial disproportionality, parental rights, guardian ad litem, child advocate, CASA, family court, class, poverty

Suggested Citation

Mulzer, Amy and Urs, Tara, However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs (February 27, 2017). 20 CUNY L. Rev. 23, March 2017, Available at SSRN:

Tara Urs

King County Department of Public Defense ( email )

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