Across the United States, more than 600,000 children are in foster care.
Jessica Laspino recited this figure to emphasize the overwhelming nature of the crisis in the United States.
“Most people believe governmental systems care for these children,” said Laspino, executive director of CASA of Lancaster County (Court Appointed Special Advocates). “But these programs are often overburdened, leaving many children from abusive homes or suffering the loss of parents getting bumped around the system.”
CASA consists of community volunteers who stand up and speak out for these children. About 1,000 CASA programs exist across the country to recruit, train and supervise volunteers to act as advocates and mentors for abused and neglected children and teens.
About 15 years ago, recognizing the extent of the problem locally and aware of other CASA programs, then-President Judge Louis J. Farina felt that a CASA program should be developed in Lancaster County.
Over the following years, a steering committee built the foundation by recruiting and bringing together CASA’s first board of directors.
“After much hard work and coordination between all of the necessary groups, the Lancaster County Dependency Court appointed CASA its first case in 2010,” Laspino said. “At the present time in Lancaster County, we have CASA volunteer advocates helping just under one-half of the nearly 500 children in foster care.”
Laspino has been executive director for nearly 10 years, previously working as a CASA case supervisor in two counties in New Jersey.
She introduced me to three CASA volunteers who had each attended 32 hours of training over a four-week program. To protect the identity of the children they help, only their first names will be used here.
These volunteers are appointed by a judge to represent the best interests of the children. They make recommendations to the Lancaster County dependency judges as to which permanent placement would be best for each child and what services the child would benefit most from.
All three volunteers agreed that one of the hardest aspects of the job is to leave their emotions behind, as the judge expects CASA volunteers to be impartial.
“I found CASA when I was looking for a place to volunteer which would help children,” Nicole said. “When I completed my training, I was assigned a case with three girls all under the age of 10. Gaining their confidence can be very difficult, as many of them have been bounced around to a number of homes or facilities.”
With tears in her eyes, she recalled attending a court session with her volunteer manager, a staff member of CASA. The judge was attempting to determine the appropriate home for an 11-year-old boy who sat in the back of the courtroom. The parents each had counsel, and neither wanted the child.
“Each case is different and may go on for years,” said Janice, who joined CASA four years ago. “The court is trying to determine if a home meets the necessary standard of care. This was hard for me to watch as the minimum standard of care in many cases was not one I would have initially considered acceptable.”
She cited a case of two sisters. One of the girls simply wanted to go back to her mom, but her mother was serving a two-year jail sentence.
Janice worked with the girl, who was frustrated waiting for her mom and kept acting out and getting in trouble. She kept communicating with the girl to help her understand that acting out was not going to help her reunify with her mother any quicker.
Eventually, her mother was released, and they were reunited.
“One day, I received a call from the girl,” Janice said. “She was having trouble in high school and might not graduate. She asked for my help, and I mentored her for a number of months. What happiness for me when she walked down that aisle and graduated!”
The girl now has a job and is on a better path.
“Her success makes all of the frustration and hard work worthwhile,” Janice said.
Victoria handles what she describes as the “really difficult cases,” some of which have so many variables they are hard to manage. She mentioned a recurring challenge—parents must go through a protocol in order to get their children back. This can take an extended period of time, particularly when there are limited options for the parents and a waiting list for various services.
“CASA’s impact has grown tremendously over the last few years,” Laspino said. “At the present time, there is a state CASA in Pennsylvania and approximately one-third of the counties have a CASA. I am so proud we have carved out a seat for CASA in the Lancaster legal system.”
CASA of Lancaster County is located at 35 E. Orange Street, No. 202, Lancaster. CASA is holding a fundraiser, a “Roaring Twenties Casino Night,” on Saturday, Sept. 7. For more information, call 717-208-3280 or visit www.casalancaster.org.