BY CLARE PARKHURST - The Inside The Back Mountain Magazine
It was in 1976, Superior Court Judge David Soukup of Seattle, Washington, saw a recurring problem in his courtroom.
“In criminal and civil cases, even though there were always many different points of view, you walked out of the courthouse at the end of the day and you said, ‘I’ve done my best; I can live with this decision’, he explains. But when you’re involved with a child and you’re trying to decide what to do to facilitate that child’s growth as a mature and happy adult, you don’t feel like you have suficient information to allow you to make the right decision. You can’t walk away and leave them at the courthouse at 4 o’clock. You wonder, ‘Do I really know everything I should? Have I really been told all of the dfferent things? Is this really right?”
In the early 1980’s, Attorney John Aciukewicz, working as a young professional for Legal Services of Northeastern Pennsylvania witnessed the overload of foster child cases in Luzerne County and its impact on those children. He saw first hand how holes in the information given to juvenile court judges made it difficult for those judges to make informed decisions about what was best for a child’s living situation. Where would that child feel happiest and safest? Is that place with parents, relatives or with a loving foster family? If you don’t have all the facts, how could a truly informed decision be made? It was back then when John happened to come across an article in a legal publication. “ e article chronicled the initiative of a Seattle juvenile court judge concerned about making drastic decisions with insuficient information. He conceived the idea of citizen volunteers speaking up for the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom.” That is when the first CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate Association) was born. From that first program in Seattle, CASA has grown to a network of nearly 1,000 CASA and guardian ad litem programs that are recruiting, training and supporting volunteers in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The article John Aciukiwicz happened upon about Judge Soukup’s initiative inspired him. He knew that a CASA organization in Luzerne County was just what our juvenile court system needed to assist in making the right decisions for children in need. It was not until 2013 that CASA of Luzerne County was founded to serve Luzerne County’s abused and neglected children. Today, CASA of Luzerne County has thirty trained volunteer advocates who serve 50 abused or neglected children in our county.
In 2013, Sue Serafin was one of the first to volunteer and train for an advocate volunteer position. Sue, a retired Air Force Colonel, is also involved in the training of advocates. “As a child advocate, a CASA works to become an expert on the unique history and experiences of their child or sibling group. They do this by spending time with their child and getting to know them. They work hard to establish a bond of trust so that the child can be understood in his or her own terms. ey also gather information by reviewing court reports and speaking with family members, teachers, social workers, counselors, caregivers, doctors and anyone else involved in the child’s life.” Sue Serafin is one of those court appointed advocates who does this for two families in Luzerne County. She is the person in two boys’ lives who is there for them when their grandfather cannot be. “ To be there for them to make sure the decisions on education, home life, and basic needs are met means everything for their future success and survival.” As Sue explained, “Just hugging them means so much, but being there when they call me because they need advice and or they’re confused about what decisions they need to make, is invaluable to them and me. When they need me, they know I’m there for them.”
Donna Vrhel, Advocate Supervisor for Luzerne County CASA, is responsible for the recruitment, selection, training, assignment and evaluation of advocated volunteers. Donna spent 27 years working with Luzerne County Children & Youth Services as a supervisor of Child Protective Services. Her experience with the foster care system, the families and, most importantly, the children, has been an invaluable asset to Luzerne County CASA. Her guidance and support of each advocate volunteer has helped ensure that the mission of Luzerne County CASA be achieved, that each child’s immediate needs are met, and that a long-term plan to nd a safe, nurturing and permanent home for each child is carefully considered and responsibly implemented.
Judge Edward Guido, a Dependency Judge in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, succinctly describes the role of a CASA. “Every child has the right to a safe and permanent home. A CASA’s role in a child-in-need’s life is to investigate, advocate, facilitate and monitor that process. It is a difficult job to have. Your heart will be broken, but your voice will be heard.”
CASA organizations across e United States are not just non-profits. They are 501 (c) 3 organizations who rely on donations, grants and fundraisers to support their e orts. They are not in any way government organizations and are not supported by taxpayer dollars. CASA of Luzerne County is one of these. e numbers are obvious: more child advocate volunteers are needed and more funds are needed. They need the support of our Back Mountain residents and our community.
On September 29, CASA of Luzerne County will be presenting the inaugural CASAblanca Gala. The events’ major sponsors are M&T Bank, OneSource and WBRE/ WYOU. The evening promises to be a night of elegance and generosity with exciting casino tables, delicious cuisine and the inspiring stories of CASA children and their advocates. is fundraiser will help to fund this very local cause and this organization and volunteers who can make significant positive influences in the lives of children who do not have voices. As Layne Crothers, Vice President at M&T explained, “ M&T Bank is proud to support such a great organization like CASA. There is nothing more important than the safety and support of our community’s future, our children. CASA does just that by advocating for the best interests of abused and neglected children in Luzerne County. Thank you, CASA”