A new study of the prestigious child-protection agency known popularly as CASA suggests that its national work may be hurting kids—and the problem could be racism among agency volunteers.

CASA, short for the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association (NCASAA), is a $14 million, mostly Justice Department-funded program in which volunteers investigate juvenile and family court cases that usually involve abuse and neglect charges. Last year, some 74,000 volunteers in over 900 local NCASAA agencies evaluated about 280,000 children, along with family members and institutions involved with their cases. Then volunteers gave judges their views about, say, whether the kids should be returned to their families, kept in foster care or freed for adoption.

The study, commissioned by NCASAA’s national office in Seattle, found that judges pay a lot of attention to volunteers’ recommendations. It also found that CASA volunteers tend to handle the most severe, demanding cases.

Those were the rah-rah findings, but others were deeply disturbing. When researchers crunched data from the 25 chapters who participated, it showed that volunteers spent 38 percent less time with black children than with those of other races. And, according to other data, kids with CASA volunteers were much more likely to be removed from their families while their cases were open than were those without CASA volunteers—even though kids who stayed home were no more likely to suffer further abuse.

The study, by Caliber Associates in Fairfax, Virginia, was unveiled at NCASAA’s national convention in June. Shortly afterward, Richard Wexler, head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), went on the warpath. NCCPR thinks too many families involved in abuse cases are needlessly broken up and their children traumatized, often due to child protection officials’ racist and elitist attitudes toward their parents. NCCPR circulated a press release claiming that the study shows NCASAA “does nothing to actually improve the lives of children and may well make them worse.” NCASAA, avers NCCPR, “needs to be radically reformed—or abolished.”

In response, NCASAA and Caliber Associates say much of the data is probably unreliable. According to Caliber researcher Janet Griffith, investigators used nationwide data independent of NCASAA locals to put together a “control” group of non-CASA kids who were just as abused as those who got CASA volunteers. The goal was to compare these two groups to see what difference having a CASA made. But it’s not certain the two groups were matched well enough, so it’s no surprise they’d have different experiences with family removal—which wouldn’t be caused by CASA volunteers, Griffith said.

Still, the finding about time not spent with African-American children seems solid; it’s based solely on information provided by local chapters. Findings also reflect the fact, uncontested by NCASAA, that volunteers nationally are 83 percent white, overwhelming female, highly educated and frequently unemployed: the classic “ladies who lunch” profile.

New York City-CASA wasn’t part of the study, and its numbers look rather different from national figures. According to director Amy Feldman, over one-third of the city’s volunteers are minorities, and many are social work grad students doing internships. “I think New York City CASA works well,” said Sue Jacobs, director of the Center for Family Representation, which stresses keeping kids out of foster care whenever possible.

Regardless of the validity of the study findings, said national NCASAA CEO Michael Piraino, the organization plans to “put a lot of effort into diversifying the volunteer pool.”