Denise Estabrook, a retired nurse, signed up to be a court appointed special advocate (CASA) in 2012 as a logical next step in a life of volunteerism. She had gone on a medical mission to Guatemala; she had supported an African child through a church; and at home in Snohomish County, Washington, she decided to volunteer in the child welfare system. Her role would be to monitor a child’s life in foster care, and to file reports and testify to the court on what was in the best interests of the child.
The next year, she was assigned to Apple (not her real name), a newborn baby who had been removed from her parents because, according to court documents, she was “at risk for neglect.” Apple, who is Black, had just been placed with a white foster family when Estabrook, who is also white, was assigned to the case. A social worker later testified that Estabrook assured the foster mother, who had been looking for a child who was at low risk for being returned to their birth parents, that she had nothing to worry about when she took in the baby girl in 2013. Estabrook told her that the birth parents had lost children to social services before, that they had a history of failing to complete the services required to get their kids back, and that they wouldn’t do what was necessary to get Apple back.
But Estabrook also actively helped prevent Apple from being returned to her parents, their lawyers now allege. Over the next two years, a Superior Court judge later documented, Estabrook and other people in the program fed the foster mother confidential information about Apple’s biological parents and actively tried to limit their visits.
In doing so, the lawyers say, Estabrook went beyond her role as a court advocate and sabotaged the family’s chances of reuniting. But it wasn’t just Estabrook. Because of what the judge called “pervasive and egregious” violations in the program, the case is now pending before Washington’s Court of Appeals, which is considering a reversal of the termination of Apple’s parents’ rights.
Regardless of the outcome in Apple’s case, her story brings to light just how much influence a volunteer can have in deciding the direction of a vulnerable child’s life.
An ‘untouchable role’
The CASA program began in 1977 in the next county over from Snohomish—King County, home of Seattle. A judge there felt he didn’t have enough information to make good decisions in child dependency cases, and enlisted the help of volunteers. The program has since exploded, with more than 85,000 volunteers working in programs connected to CASA across the country, although the role of CASAs, also called volunteer guardian ad litems or VGALs, can be drastically different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The program’s racial demographics also vary somewhat, but CASAs are overwhelmingly white and middle class, in stark contrast to the children they serve, who are overwhelmingly from working-class or poor backgrounds and are disproportionately children of color. This disconnect can lead to questionable decisions made on behalf of children, argues Tara Urs, a family court attorney in King County, in a 2015 CUNY Law Review article she co-authored, “However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs.”
The article argues that the role of CASA volunteers as trusted and unbiased advisers to the court gives them outsize power over families’ futures. “CASA programs have carved out a unique and in some ways untouchable role in child welfare decision-making nationwide,” the article explains.
Critics say that’s what may have happened in Snohomish County. In a 2016 ruling on a post-trial motion, Superior Court Judge Anita Farris said Estabrook used her personal email address to send the foster mother unredacted police reports detailing prior bad behavior by the parents, as well as information on Apple’s siblings, including their full names and the names of those who adopted them.
Rather than facilitate visits between Apple and her biological parents, the judge said, Estabrook and the foster mother seemed determined to make them more difficult. According to court documents from Apple’s parents’ termination trial, Estabrook helped Apple’s foster mother craft an extremely restrictive list of foods that the biological parents were made to follow if they were to be allowed to visit with Apple. She wasn’t allowed to eat “hundreds of healthy foods,” the judge noted, including eggs and most starches. The list was explained as medically necessary, although no doctor had seen or approved it and Apple was later found later to have no allergies to the foods on the list. She did, however, have a potential allergy to cashews, a food that wasn’t on the list. According to testimony by the CASA program coordinator, Estabrook also attempted to attend Apple’s mother’s parenting class, a confidential group meeting, and was asked by two different program coordinators to leave.
To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement. I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.
Anita Farris Superior Court Judge
Estabrook died in 2015, yet the problems continued. In a ruling the following year, Farris found that the supervisor who took over the case from Estabrook hid evidence regarding the allergy test results and unauthorized communications between the CASA and the foster mother from the parents’ attorneys, and lied repeatedly on the stand. After Apple’s mother’s attorney filed a complaint against the CASA supervisor, the judge found, the program retaliated by complaining about the attorney’s firm to the Office of Public Defense. And one program coordinator attempted to surreptitiously record the attorneys’ private conversations in the courtroom, the judge said.
“To say that I’m disappointed in the program would be an understatement,” Farris said, during her original 2015 ruling. “I’m appalled by the things that I’ve seen that occurred on this case.”
Apple’s mother had fought for her, attending parenting classes and scheduled visits with the child. But Apple’s mother had allegedly been abused by Apple’s father and Farris wasn’t convinced that he was keeping his distance. Based on that concern, she found that their parental rights were properly terminated, but lambasted the CASAs involved. Not only did they break the rules, she said, but they “created an appeal issue that will render any verdict less securely permanent for this child.”
The case is in appeals court, with Apple’s parents seeking to reverse the termination ruling. Still, it has been five years since they lost custody of her—the entirety of the girl’s life. Her parents’ attorneys argue that the termination would not have gone through if Estabrook wasn’t working against their clients from the outset.
A social worker who worked in Snohomish County at the time of Apple’s case, who asked not to be named for fear of affecting the worker’s current cases, said the CASA program was impeded by its homogenous makeup, where the volunteers’ instincts and opinions, which were heavily influenced by their own backgrounds, often went unquestioned. “The [volunteers] came with a set of values and beliefs around families and family roles that were sometimes rigid and certainly weren’t as diverse as the clients we were servicing and sometimes were conservative and damaging,” the social worker said. “A lot of support was given to foster parents, and it didn’t seem there was that same level of support to the birth parents.”
Ida Keeley, the Snohomish County CASA program manager who came on to direct the program a year ago, said the court administration made an internal decision to review and assess the program after Judge Farris’s rulings. The assessment resulted in “changes to the organizational structure, additional policies and procedures, and increased training both for staff and volunteers,” Keeley said in an email. “There is also ongoing recruitment in our communities of color and underrepresented communities in order to have a volunteer base that represents the children in care.”
A child’s ‘best interests’
The Snohomish County CASA program is just half an hour from the headquarters of the National CASA Organization, but despite the high-profile comments by Judge Farris, the national organization issued no public statement and took no action against the county’s program.
When the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose.
Tara Urs family court attorney
Susan Stoltzfus, communications director for the National CASA program, said in an email that the national organization supports the local programs through training, volunteer recruitment materials, and technical assistance. Another communications officer noted that the demographics of CASA volunteers (who are 79 percent white and 72 percent age 40 or over) “align, for the most part, with U.S. trends in volunteerism” and that the program is working to diversify its pool of participants. And although Stoltzfus said member chapters “must adhere to certain standards and requirements to maintain affiliation,” she did not respond to repeated requests for information on the specific standards and compliance policies in place.
“We don’t manage or direct the local program activities,” Stoltzfus said in her email. “That all happens at the local level. If the program is a nonprofit, they have their own board of directors. If the program is publicly administered, then the government (usually a county) provides the oversight.”
In many jurisdictions, CASAs are considered parties to the child welfare case—even in states where the child herself is not considered a party. Typically, in order to be a party in a case, one has to have a sufficient connection to the proceedings to demonstrate a stake in the outcome. CASAs are an exception to this, explained Urs, the co-author of the law review article, and their perceived neutrality can lead a judge to give more weight to a CASA’s point of view. When a parent’s lawyer speaks, for example, the judge hears the argument while understanding that the law requires that attorney to zealously represent their client. “But when the CASA speaks, the ordinary skepticism is gone, because they don’t stand to gain or lose,” Urs said.
The issue is compounded in states where children aren’t always entitled to attorneys in dependency proceedings. In Washington, only children ages 12 and up, or children whose parents’ rights have been terminated for six months and who still haven’t been adopted are given attorneys. Otherwise, the volunteer CASA is assigned to represent the child’s “best interests,” but that can be different from what the child wants. If those interests diverge, the CASA is the one who issues reports and often takes the stand on behalf of the child; in places where children don’t get attorneys, that may mean their wishes aren’t taken into account at all. CASAs are not bound by attorney-client privilege, and are considered agents of the court. In some places, like Snohomish County, the program is run out of the court itself.
Lawyers and social workers told The Appeal they must consider a CASA’s feelings and impressions, while navigating already complex and high-stakes situations. “As a parent’s attorney, it’s hard to advise your client about what to do with a CASA,” Urs said. “It’s really helpful to get the CASA on your side, but they’re not trained social workers.”
A 2004 study conducted on behalf of the national CASA organization found other issues as well. Researchers found that CASA volunteers spent less time on cases involving Black children than those involving white children, and that the average time spent on each case is around three hours a month. It also found that children assigned CASA volunteers were less likely to be reunified with their parents. A small follow-up study by a Snohomish County CASA volunteer, published in 2014 as a capstone project for a master’s thesis, found children assigned a CASA were more likely to be placed outside the home.
The former Snohomish County social worker said she has noticed that trend. “On more than one occasion, the barrier I had to returning a child home was the CASA,” the social worker said. “Some see their role as facilitating adoption, and that cannot be the role. If that’s your concern—saving the child from their birth parents—if that’s where you’re coming from, you should not be a CASA.”