Imagine yourself as a child, removed from your home and placed with a foster family where the people don’t look like your parents or siblings. The longer you’re there, the more you realize that they do things differently than your family. At first it’s little things, but as time goes on you feel more and more disconnected from the people around you. You don’t feel fully understood in this unfamiliar environment. This is often the experience for minority children in the foster care system.
Raised in New Orleans, Michelle Cobern, a white woman, was the minority in the community she grew up in. That didn’t matter to her though, as her grandmother raised her on the words “We’re all made the same, we just have different color skin.” This lesson would come back to Cobern years later when she became the Executive Director of CASA of Titus, Camp and Morris Counties and her son pointed out at a CASA ribbon cutting that all of the staff and volunteers were white. Once it was pointed out to her, she realized this wasn’t right – especially in a community with such a large minority population.
The problem of disproportionality extends far past CASA staff and volunteers. Currently in Texas, there is a disproportionate number of black children in the foster care system. While black children make up 9 percent of the Texas child population, they make up more than 21 percent of the foster care population. These disparities go farther than just population makeup. Black children who are removed from their homes are less likely to reunify. In cases where reunification is ruled out, they are less likely than other races and ethnicities, with the exception of Native Americans, to be adopted within 12 months of termination of parental rights.
After her son pointed out the racial disparity at her program, Cobern began making a conscious effort to recruit volunteers of color from her community. Cobern and her team began to root themselves in the local churches whose congregations were primarily made up of black individuals. They attended church services, not as an organization seeking recruits, but as people who were there to worship, just as everyone else was. There was no pandering, all they were there to do was to make genuine connections with a new community. This relationship grew and ultimately blossomed into an amazing community partnership with the goal of improving the lives of children in the child welfare system.
Cobern and her team also made efforts to reach out to the Hispanic and Latinx community, which required an equally thoughtful approach. Trust was needed to create a relationship that cut through the charged political climate and discourse that crowded the local consciousness. Cobern then decided to undertake a push to have the workforce around her be more diverse. A more diverse workforce, resulted in building the trust they needed. Once community members saw people who looked like them at CASA, the seed of trust was planted, and through community involvement was nurtured and matured into complete corroboration.
With these partnerships and strategies, Cobern and CASA of Titus, Camp, and Morris Counties are now able to better serve the minority children in their area.
We know that children, regardless of race, feel lost and scared when they are removed from their home; but minority children face unique challenges. Time and time again, these children are placed with non-minority foster families, causing a greater culture shock on top of the traumatic events that have already taken place. This is where a CASA can come in to help reduce the jolt from the unfamiliar. The minority experience in America is unique, and can only be fully comprehended by those who live it. When a child has a CASA who looks like them, talks like them and can understand their experiences, the effects go beyond the surface level. Culture is a central structure of countless families, but many fail to realize that cultural differences exist and matter beyond concepts like food or hair care.
“These are fundamentals to these families, and we have to understand what is important to them and their fabric,” Cobern said. “We have to learn what is important to them and their culture to truly be able to advocate for them.”
One of the most important elements of making these local connections was authenticity. Cobern and her husband became active members of the NAACP, not in an effort to help recruitment, but to help the black community. Cobern and her team are always present at cultural events in the community, not because they are necessarily a part of the culture, but because these events matter to them – this is the community they are a part of. Regardless of race, culture or creed, Cobern and her team back the community as a whole, and driving all these efforts are genuine desires to understand and support the minority communities in the area.
“Be genuine, because if you aren’t, then you’re wasting your time,” said Cobern.
These local connections helped heighten the level of care CASA of Titus, Camp, and Morris Counties could provide to children of all identities.
“Children deserve someone who understands them. Wherever that takes us, we are going.” Cobern said. “You’re either in the boat or out.”
When a child identifies with any minority group, whether that be race, sexuality, disability status, gender identity/expression, it is best to have an advocate who has had similar experiences, so the child’s situation can be accurately understood and communicated properly with their best interest in mind. Texas CASA, as the statewide organization, is also taking steps to better advocate for these children, but ultimately it comes down to the CASA volunteers across the state and local programs like CASA of Titus, Camp and Morris Counties and the amazing work they are doing on the ground level. While we don’t fully know what a perfect CASA program looks like, we are taking steps every day to help the local CASA programs recruit the best possible advocates for children.
“It takes self–awareness and courage to address disparities and find solutions,” said Dennise Jackson, Texas CASA Recruitment and Retention Officer. “Michelle did not get defensive, but took an offensive look at her program and made the changes necessary to make sure that black and brown children and their families felt welcome and safe.”