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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Child Advocates’ dedication to Marion County’s children

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By GREGG ELLIS

Every child deserves to be well-loved, protected, and secure in his or her home. But unfortunately, that is not the reality for 7,000 to 8,000 children who are abused and/or neglected in Marion County each year. And for 23 years, I was proud to be part of an agency that served as the CASA (court-appointed special advocate) in Marion County representing each child’s best interests in court.

I am the recently retired chief program officer for Child Advocates, the county’s CASA agency for 39 impressive years. And I am profoundly saddened and concerned about the city’s recent decision not to renew Child Advocates’ contract — not just because Child Advocates was an experienced, effective and award-winning voice for vulnerable children — but because Child Advocates ventured into an area where few CASA or child advocacy agencies nationwide dare to tread. It confronted the systemic racism and biases that pervade the child welfare system. Several studies nationally and locally have shown that if you are a Black or brown child, you have a disproportionate chance of being removed from your home, being placed in foster care and facing poorer outcomes.

Around 2008, Marion County’s Juvenile Court created a committee to address this disproportionality as part of a Model Courts program. And Child Advocates rose to the challenge by helping launch groundbreaking anti-racism and race equity workshops in 2009. Child Advocates and partners sponsored the workshops to train child welfare staff and the courts, including judges in the juvenile justice system, to recognize racism and address its’ impact on children. But over the years, Child Advocates expanded the race equity workshops to reach and teach the whole community. Countless businesses, schools, nonprofits, and community leaders have taken the Undoing Racism workshops conducted by an outside facilitator, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Or they took the more recently formed Interrupting Racism for Children workshops with Child Advocates’ staff as experienced race equity facilitators. Child Advocates’ goal is to ensure that no child’s race is a predictor of his or her life outcomes. It also wants to create a better community and a better future for all children.

Child Advocates’ CEO, Cindy Booth, helped lead the movement to build race equity programming as a critical part of the agency, diligently working to help acquire the funding it needed to succeed. She was spurred to act after learning that Black children represented around 70% of children in the child welfare system in 2008. As a white woman taking the lead in anti-racism programming, Cindy faced many hurdles. I admire her passion, fortitude and devotion to this consequential work. But Cindy did not stop there. She also took on the mantle of hiring diverse staff to best represent the children and improve their outcomes. When she started leading Child Advocates in 1996, there was no staff of color but, under her direction, African American staff who were directly engaged with children, totaled more than 60% by 2021. And leadership and management staff were more than 50% African American and Hispanic.

Child Advocates has received national and state recognition for its’ work, winning diversity in leadership awards from both the National CASA/GAL organization and Mayor Joseph Hogsett’s office. But Child Advocates’ story is not about the agency. It is about the children it serves. And today, I worry that since Child Advocates is no longer the CASA agency for Marion County, some of its’ vital and urgent work, to represent every child equally, regardless of race, might get lost in transition.

Child Advocates helped put the issue of race front and center in the child welfare system. And with diverse staff, we had firsthand experience in addressing issues that might negatively impact each child’s case. The new agency the city hired was much smaller in size, had little staff diversity, and no race equity programming. I would urge the executive committee for the court to continue addressing the disproportionality in the child welfare system. And I would urge Mayor Hogsett not to lose sight of the life-changing work Child Advocates has conducted — and will continue to lead. It would be a setback that would reverberate throughout the community and impact the most innocent victims — our children.  

Gregg Ellis recently retired as chief program officer for Child Advocates.

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