Court-appointed-advocates program in Luzerne County seeks volunteers


LUZERNE — The faces on the screen were all that were needed to convince the viewers to think about getting involved. The seven-minute film, titled “Everyday Heroes,” was done for the National CASA Organization. It was shown Monday night at the Hope Center — a free clinic on Main Street, Luzerne — during a meeting hosted by the General Federation of Womens Clubs-West Side.

According to John Aciukewicz, executive director of CASA of Luzerne County, CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates — 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, and to learn and grow in the security of a loving family. He said CASA needs more volunteers for the program.

CASA volunteers are qualified, compassionate people from the community, Aciukewicz said, who advocate for physically or sexually abused children — becoming their voice.

According to CASA’s website, advocates “work 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. They 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.”

Equipped with this knowledge, the advocate provides critical insight to the court about what would be best for that specific child, ensuring that a careful and customized action plan are developed for each child. By informing and supporting the court, CASA ensures the safety and long-term prosperity of their child.

Aciukewicz offered some sobering statistics:

• At any one point in time, some 400 Luzerne County children are in foster care.

• In 2015, 483 children in Luzerne County were removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

• By the age of 19, 30 percent of boys in foster care will be incarcerated.

• Girls in foster care are two and a half times more likely to become pregnant.

• Many foster care children end up homeless.

In the darkened community room at the Hope Center, about 50 women sat motionless as they listened to the comments of CASA participants.

Those interviewed for the film talked about how they longed for a stable, safe, permanent home. They wanted to be rid of the uncertainty and instability they have known most of their young lives.

“It would be great to have a mom and a dad,” one participant said. “And my own room. Someone to stand up for me.”

Aciukewicz said CASA volunteers help the children find that hope.

“You can be a hero,” he said.

Aciukewicz said the goals of the CASA program are to return the child to their biological parents if possible, or find an adoptive home, or kinship care, or the child remains in permanent foster care.

There are 933 CASA programs in the U.S. and 23 in Pennsylvania. Luzerne County’s program began in 2013.

Kimberlee Runnion, advocate coordinator, explained the role of an advocate to the group, detailing her personal experience as a volunteer in Lehigh County. She said the interview process is extremely detailed and very personal to assure each volunteer gets the right fit with the program. The training program consists of about 30 hours, she said.

Kristen Haas, a member of the GFWC-West Side, has served as an advocate for the Luzerne County CASA program. She told the group of her experience and its rewards. An advocate is assigned one child and that relationship can last anywhere from one year to more than two years, Aciukewicz said, with the average time about 20 months. Most children are removed from their homes because of abuse and/or neglect and many of the parents suffer from mental illness or drug abuse.

Deidre Miller Kaminski, president of GFWC-West Side, said the members of the group were very interested in the program and presented a check to Aciukewicz in support of CASA. Kaminski said several members expressed a desire to learn more about the CASA program and possibly become volunteer advocates.