Every year, Edelman PR releases its “Trust Barometer” (see below), which assesses the types of people (e.g. CEOs, friends) and/or institutions (e.g. NGOs, Think Tanks) that consumers look and listen to when they make opinions about the quality of an organization. This year, regular employees and people “like yourself” gained great credibility. CEOs and government officials lost notable authority. Academic institutions and “experts” retained their position as the most trusted voices when it comes to gauging an organization.
These trust findings have tremendous importance for organizations like the San Francisco Court Appointed Special Advocates (SFCASA); for although 10% of SFCASA funding comes from the government—namely from the court system that officially appoints a counties’ volunteer advocates—SF CASA relies heavily on individual, corporate, and foundation giving. These groups account for roughly the other 40%, 10% and 40% of their annual budget, respectively. As such, through grant-writing, event-planning, and general PR-ing (read: Public Realtions-ing), CASA must, and does, invest incredible time and energy promoting its cause and advocating its merit. However, as the Edelman report explains, CASA itself is not its best spokesperson in this process. Academic and expert opinions lend a far more authoritative voice.
Understandably, funders and donors want hard figures to validate an organization’s best-intentioned missions. As such, particularly in the increasingly fierce non-profit battle for funding (2011 was the first year that saw increases in charitable giving after the recession), efficacy figures and effectiveness metrics are key. Academics play a notable role in generating these numbers. Whether it’s documenting the cost-saving benefits of preventive medicine or illustrating the power of mindfulness meditation in treating trauma, effectiveness studies are common topics of academic research. Organizations incorporate these findings to buffer their value.
In the years to come, the rise of evidence-based grant-giving could pose serious problems for organizations without clearly proven outcomes—and potentially an unfair disadvantage for organization with outcomes that are difficult to assess. CASA falls into this category. As Berkeley Professor of Social Work explains in her article “Establishing CASA as an Evidence-Based Practice,” although CASA has been operating since 1977 and currently operates in 49 states with roughly 75,000 volunteers, there’s shockingly little conclusive documentation of its effectiveness. The organization is very highly regarded—by community members, courts, children, and government workers, alike—and studies show that CASA volunteers are commonly the most reliable, lasting person in a foster child’s life.
However, efforts to measure the positive outcomes the program espouses for foster youth has been difficult. For one, it’s difficult, at times even illegal, to follow a person for multiple years—a requisite in charting long term outcomes (e.g. graduation rates, unemployment, and incarceration). For another, while not all foster youth receive CASA volunteers—which would seem to create two simple pools of children to compare—the foster youth who typically receive CASA volunteers are those with the greatest need (long history of abuse, little external support, multiple indicators of mental disturbance). As such, considerable selection bias would exist in comparing those who were recommended to receive CASA support from those who were not. The children likely come from different starting points.
Given these obstacles, existing studies typically focus primarily on short term outcomes of children assigned CASA volunteers versus those who were not. Were CASA children more likely to be reunited with their families or put into a longterm living solution? Did they reach this “permanency” more quickly? Most studies say yes, although all do not concur. Moreover, one cannot even make conclusions about how beneficial these differences really are. Who is really to say that reunification with the biological family is best for the child? Is this the appropriate metric to measure the benefit of a CASA volunteer?
It’s difficult to say. While studies on the CASA the organization yield complex, equivocal outcomes, studies on foster care in and of itself yield even more ambiguous findings. Although the government has funded children’s welfare basically since the Progressive Era, and although it has tried to guide social workers on best outcomes for children by advocating reunification, there really is no conclusive work. To the contrary, emerging research challenges longstanding government opinion that reunification with a child’s biological family is the best option for foster youth; instead, researchers are finding that reunification is associated with more self-destructive behavior, increased substance abuse, and a higher likelihood of dropping out of school. Simultaneously, however, foster youth themselves commonly assert that their lives would be better, or at least have stayed the same, had they stayed with their biological families.
These gaps in effectiveness studies both illustrate CASA’s quandary and its great import. Without reliable scientific studies, CASA programs cannot easily prove their effectiveness to donors, nor do they have clear guidance on how best to structure their programs. Studies are thus critically needed to ‘sell’ the program to potential donors, but of far more importance, they are necessary to develop the best program for the child.
Still, despite the lack of hard CASA studies, research on child development, the positive effects of mentoring, the role of conscientious parents, and more all infer the likely power of having a CASA volunteer in a child’s life. It would be wrong, after all, to throw out all common sense just because specific numbers aren’t present. For given the ambiguity on best-practices, careful nuance and thoughtfulness is essential to ensure a child’s best outcome. Individualized decisions are best, and a CASA volunteer is clearly positioned to make this happen. By hanging out with the child, getting to know the family, talking to teachers and more, the CASA can provide the very individualization the child needs.