John Aciukewicz and his staff at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Luzerne County (CASA) are looking for a few good volunteers.
Actually, they’re looking for more than a few.
The nonprofit group, which advocates for children in the county’s foster care system, has a goal of adding 90 more volunteers by the end of 2020.
Even then, they would only be able to assign volunteer advocates to about 50 percent of the county’s children in foster care. But that would be a major step up from today, when CASA’s 24 advocates reach only about 10 percent of the county’s 4oo-plus foster children.
Plains Township-based CASA has two information sessions for prospective volunteers planned for this month: One set for 5:30 p.m. Monday at its office, 667 S. River St., and another there at noon on May 21.
We spoke with Aciukewicz, a veteran attorney who has been CASA’s executive director since late 2016, about what the group does and why there is such a need for its services. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is CASA?
A: The mission is to recruit, select, train and support volunteers from the community who then are appointed by a judge to advocate for the best interests of children suffering from abuse and neglect, and who have been placed in the foster care system. The goal is to ensure a safe, permanent home for these children as quickly as possible.
Q: How did this idea come about?
A: A judge in Seattle in the 1970s had many children coming before him and there was a lot he felt he wasn’t hearing as he decided whether they should return home, remain in foster care or enter some other placement. So he created this idea of recruiting and selecting community volunteers to assist him in gathering more information to make decisions about permanency.
And the volunteer is just that — the only person in the system who is there who is not being paid, but being there because he or she wants to be there, advocating for the best interest of the child.
As much trauma as these children experience, research also suggests that if you have a consistent, compassionate, caring, dedicated adult in the child’s life during this period, it helps to alleviate some of that trauma.
Q: How did the program come here? What has your role been?
A: In the 1990s, the juvenile act in Pennsylvania was amended to allow for CASAs, giving advocates complete access to all information concerning these children without needing the parents’ release.
CASA came to Luzerne County in 2013 through the initiative of county judges Thomas F. Burke Jr. and Tina Polachek Gartley. They were instrumental in securing start-up funding through a grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. I joined the board of directors in February 2013 and became executive director in October 2016.
Q: Why is this program needed?
A: There are 424 children on average in foster care in Luzerne County due to abuse or neglect. Currently, we have 24 active advocates serving 41 children. The opioid crisis has only worsened things. More so than abuse, children are suffering from neglect because a parent or caregiver is struggling with substance abuse.
This service is not replicated by anybody else. These are children who don’t want to be in the circumstances they are in, but they have no control over that. The volunteer is going to make a connection with the child that we feel no one else simply has the time to be able to make.
Q: Recruiting and training must be a major task, right?
The curriculum itself is roughly 30 to 35 hours of training and then three to five hours of courtroom observation.
We strive to do two training classes per year, one in the spring and one in the fall. In the current class, we expect 14 people to complete training May 16, our largest class ever. That will help significantly in beginning to work more toward our goal of trying to provide a CASA for every child in foster care.
We’ve also developed an initiative called “90 in 20.” Over the next six training classes — two each in 2018, 2019 and 2020 — our goal is 15 new trained advocates per session. We’re already recruiting for October’s class.
Q: Who can volunteer?
A: You have to be at least 21, have your high school diploma or GED, pass all background checks, then undergo an online interview, an in-person interview and provide references.
Q: After training, what then?
A: When a CASA is appointed by the judge, they are appointed to one child or sibling group. The expectation is that they’ll spend 10 to 12 hours per month in his or her role as volunteer for that child — and that could be from months to years. On average, a child is in foster care for about 19 months.
They’re going to spend at least two visits per month with the child. They’re going to be in communication with the caseworker, the guardian ad litem, the foster parents, the natural parents, the educators, the therapists, the counselors, all with the intention of gathering information identifying the needs of the child to assist the court in making decisions about the child.