Volunteers train to work with court appointed youth
MUNCY – Imagine a young child without a place to go, or being neglected, or worse yet abused. These children often become wards of the court or become part of foster care. However, an organization first developed in 1977 has grown into a network of volunteer citizens who want to make a difference in the lives of these children within a courtroom setting.
On Tuesday, January 19th Jennifer Rempe from the Court Appointed Special Advocate Association
(CASA) came to Muncy at the Pleasant View Wesleyan Church to invite anyone who is interested in hearing firsthand how to become involved. An information session of some of the area’s most active volunteers came together to express their involvement and how the Susquehanna Valley CASA has unspeakably affected the quality of their lives.
As a nurse in pediatrics, Yvonne Heatley from Wolf Township spoke on her volunteer experiences with CASA on a local level. She said, “It is the hardest, and yet the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life.” Her time is spent working on cases, sometimes just one case that could take months or years to resolve, and represents the best interests of children who have been removed from their homes. Sometimes she is called into court or attends mandated shelter hearings.
According to Rempe there are not enough volunteers to cover the amount of cases that arise to represent all the children. The court judges will typically assign a CASA volunteer to the most difficult cases. Rempe who is the regional executive director has been involved with CASA for the past 12 years and said that the Susquehanna Valley is serving a total of 140 children with about 50 active volunteers. “There is a waiting list of over 60 children and the list continues to grow on a weekly basis.”
Many of these children have no say or voice and are dependent on volunteers to help them navigate the system without harm or risk. These volunteers are advocates. “Susquehanna Valley CASA – Voices for Children is central to fulfilling society’s most fundamental obligation by making sure a qualified, compassionate adult will fight for and protect a child’s right to be safe, to be treated with dignity and respect,” reported Rempe. Since 2014 the regional organization has covered 4 counties: Union, Snyder, Lycoming and Northumberland. They will recruit and train to be a child’s voice in dependency court.
Heatley said her first case was trying to reunite two little girls with their natural father who lived in the middle of the country. Her second case lasted three and a half years. “The child was physically and sexually abused by a half brother and couldn’t trust anyone or interact. I had to do puppet play to reach him,” Heatley told the group. The six year old eventually was reunited with his mother.
A culmination of research is taken seriously by the courts. Usually a CASA volunteer will focus on one case at a time often meeting with the child’s family, investigating medical backgrounds and school records, while working independently on gathering the facts. “You need to get the whole picture,” Heatley added. Time averages about 12 to 15 hours a month. A child working with an advocate is 97% more likely to never return to the abused situation.
“It can be empowering,” reported Corey Mowrey a local attorney from Montgomery and also the Vice-Chair of the CASA board. “Based on judges’ referrals, these kids can be put in permanent lovable placements. We work to leverage resources.”
The volunteer will stay with the child until permanently placed and it takes an average of 18 to 24 months. Mowrey said one case took up to 5 years. “It is a commitment until the end.” Mowrey also gave a brief history of the organization which is largely grant funded. “We want to diversify more with corporate donations,” he said. There is a fundraiser on March 9th with “Raise the Region” through the First Community Foundation.
Sandy Spencer from Muncy said she has been involved with CASA since 2003. Working full time in Williamsport has not kept her from being a volunteer. She has been President of the PA CASA board for two years. “I love kids, but never had kids,” she said. When she first heard a CASA presentation, she said, “That’s for me! It was like a calling.” Her first case took place Nov. 2003 and she had 5 children. “I fell in love with them and the family,” Spencer said with such emotion. “It was an opportunity to break free,” added Spencer who has worked with 15 cases so far.
She said her main contact is with Children and Youth. “It is often not what you think it would beIt can be a restructuring of families. Sometimes, a termination of parental rights, and some adoptive. It has been the most rewarding work I have ever done,” said the Muncy resident who also expressed that each case is so different.
The courts will listen to your story,” said Spencer who related a story about an infant “shake case” and being the liason between the natural mother and the foster mother. Sandy went to the visits and family gatherings and discovered what was really working for the one year old child.
A volunteer will work with all cultures and diversities. Spencer added, “I look at things differently. It is very much life changing. Keep an open mind and look at what they come from.”
Each case is presented when the child is officially taken and becomes part of the foster system. CASA volunteers are then court appointed by a judge to a case. “Then we can do our own investigations with a court order,” Mowrey replied.
A training is scheduled to begin next week starting Feb. 8th for any interested volunteers and will require up to 40 hours. To become a volunteer contact Jennifer Rempe at 570-988-2200 or visit www.susquehannavalleycasa.com for more information.