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More local advocates needed for children in court system

CASA
CASA/GAL
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CASA/GAL

CASA volunteers are mentors. They’re advocates and a steady support for children within the dependency court system.

And there’s not enough of them.

“In the life of a child, they get removed from their home, so they lose their home, their family, their friends, often, their school, their foster home can change numerous times, their caseworker can change numerous times, there's no consistent, there's no one constant," said Dawn Allison, director of Pike County CASA. "So that's the commitment of the CASA.”

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Pike County started a program this year.

Seattle Judge David W. Soukup created the national program in 1977. He wanted the CASAs to be volunteers since everyone in the life of a foster child is a paid provider of some sort, Allison said.

“What he was seeing was that when he went to court on a dependency matter for a child … he didn't feel like the child had a voice, or anyone was speaking specifically for the child's best interests," she said.

Dependency court protects minors. Nine counties in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania have CASA programs.

CASAs strive to get a whole picture of the child, Allison said. They are required to meet with them once every 30 days but often talk once a week. They ask about their health history and education. CASAs talk to everyone in the children’s life.

“They're able to identify needs that the child has that are not being met … they can think of different solutions for different challenges that the child had, and they make those recommendations straight to the court," said Allison.

Susan Schor is from Milford. She served on the Delaware Valley School Board up until 2015. She joined Pike County’s CASA program this year.

“I felt like there was a missing piece that I really needed to make a difference in, in children's life again," Schor said.

Schor feels her role as a CASA is a mentor in the child’s life. She strives to be a constant and a reassuring presence.

“And that loneliness, they may feel, try and fill that, that void with them, so that they don't feel so alone," she said.

Allison pointed out a national statistic: Less than 1% of the children who have a CASA reenter the judicial system; without a CASA, it's 24.5%.

Lackawanna County started a CASA program in 2008. The county has 27 volunteers and 75 children, said director Joan Peterson. Volunteers will often take on two cases, which Peterson says is not ideal.

"We're currently able to serve 30 to 40% of the children who are in care at any time in Lackawanna County. And that's not enough," she said.

Lackawanna County CASA assigns volunteers to children who have experienced serious abuse and neglect, to cases with a lot of conflict, serious issues of addiction or to kids who have been in foster care before and are in the system for the second or third time, she said.

Luzerne County has 56 active volunteers serving 61 children, says Mary Kay Pivovarnik, director of the county’s program.

There’s around seven children on their waiting list and nine new advocates in training. However, Pivovarnik says with more than 500 children in foster care in the county there is a great need for advocates.

"We are constantly looking for new advocates to meet the needs of the county," she said.

To sign up for Pike County’s upcoming CASA training, contact Allison at 570-296-9827. The training is set for the end of September. It is four weeks long, two nights a week virtually from 6 to 9 p.m.

For more details on Lackawanna's CASA program, visit lackawannacountycasa.org; and for Luzerne's visit luzernecasa.org.

To find out if there is a CASA program locally, visit nationalcasagal.org.

Additionally, Lackawanna County CASA is holding its annual masquerade ball fundraiser on Oct. 28 at LaBona Vita in Dunmore. For more details can also be found on their website.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.