WILKES-BARRE — Court Appointed Special Advocates of Luzerne County more than doubled its pool of volunteers Monday afternoon.
Supporters of the organization, which works to provide a voice for children who have been victims of neglect or abuse as their cases wend their way through the court system, also know that the county’s caseload is still far greater than their own numbers.
“This is just the beginning,” county juvenile court Judge Jennifer L. Rogers told 15 new CASA volunteers gathered for a swearing-in ceremony at the Bernard Brominski Building.
The nationwide CASA program, which has 20 divisions across Pennsylvania, started here in October 2012, had about a dozen volunteers before Monday’s additions. With 500 children in placement in Luzerne County, the group has to shepherd its resources carefully, Rogers explained, assigning volunteers primarily to “the most complex cases.”
Attorney John Aciukewicz, CASA board president, said volunteers are assigned to one case each — although a case may include multiple siblings — in order to give their full attention and devotion to the children and families with whom they work, spending between 15 and 20 hours per month working on their cases.
According to its website, each volunteer’s main responsibilities are:
• To serve as a fact-finder for the judge by thoroughly investigating the current and background facts of each assigned case;
• To provide these facts in report form to the judge and to speak for the child in the courtroom, advocating for the child’s best interests;
• Facilitating communication between the parties in the case; and
• To continue monitoring the parties in the case, ensuring that dependency is brought to a swift and appropriate conclusion in the child’s best interests.
The volunteers do not replace caseworkers or the Guardian ad litem, but serve as independent court appointees who help provide information to all parties as needed.
Rogers and fellow Judge Tina Polachek Gartley, who administered the oath of office to the new volunteers, praised them for their willingness to take on the challenge, expressing hope that more will follow in their footsteps.
Volunteers must pass a background check and undergo 30 hours of training prior to appointment, Aciukewicz said.
They also come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, as Monday’s crop of recruits demonstrated, including business people, social services professionals and retirees.
Jacqueline Ayer-Pride began volunteering for CASA in New York City in 2011. When she retired to Stroudsburg, she wanted to continue that work and found the nearest program in Pennsylvania, being here in Luzerne County.
“I always believed that children need advocacy, they need protection, they need representation,” Ayer-Pride said.
She was joined Monday by fellow recruits Doña Benedetto, Joseph Boyle, Joan Clowes, Marilyn Glogowski, Peggy Hamilton, Cecila Hebda, Dianne Hopersberger, Michael Ide, Alexander Milanes, Richard Pais, Kathleen Provinzano, Lizbeth Rivera, Kim Sukosaski and Gary Williams.
For more information on CASA, visit www.luzernecasa.org, or call 570-855-2247.