There are some 400 children in the Dauphin County foster care system. They may find themselves in front of a judge with an attorney they just met and an unfamiliar caseworker, already traumatized in a system that is overwhelmed.
But these children now have a supporter in Court Appointed Special Advocates of Dauphin County (CASA).
“The CASA brings consistency and constancy of commitment,” and stays with a child through their foster care journey, said Lori Serratelli, a former Dauphin County judge now in private practice.
Serratelli made bringing the CASA program to Dauphin County her life’s mission, and in 2019, that dream became a reality. She said that, in this inundated system, “CASA can fill in the cracks.”
Those chinks include maneuvering through the court system, getting school and social services, and meeting with siblings.
“Kids in the system have had school plans and evaluations, but you’d be surprised how hard it is to get those things done,” said Christine Pfau Laney, the former executive director.
CASA volunteers provide a one-on-one relationship with a child or sibling group, work to make sure that their needs are being met and ensure that they receive court-ordered services. They also provide a presence that doesn’t change even as schools, caseworkers and foster families often do.
“The goal is to focus on the child’s needs,” Pfau Laney said.
CASA volunteer Wanda Heise described an advocate’s role in the program as seeing “that all the pieces come together in the puzzle and make the outcome as good as possible for these kids.”
The future tends to be brighter for foster kids who have a CASA volunteer, Serratelli said. They are less likely be to incarcerated and more likely to graduate from high school.
“You have someone cheering you on,” she said.
Encouragement comes in forms that many people take for granted, like stopping in to eat lunch with the child. That’s what Emily Kesler, a Central Dauphin senior, said that her CASA volunteer did for her, among other support.
“With Joy, it wasn’t about the whole caseworker process, like judges and everything,” said Kesler, who began in Cumberland County’s CASA program. “She actually really wanted to make sure I was in the right place and wanted to be here. She focused on me, not the process.”
Kesler, who looked all the part of the lifeguard she is, with long blonde hair and seashell necklace, entered foster care at the age of eight. She described the experience as hectic and crazy. She said that her CASA volunteer would take her out of the courtroom while the adults would hash things out. As she spoke, her eyes held the faraway look of remembering a difficult, confusing time, but also the recognition of the lifeline that CASA offered her.
The goal of foster care is reunification, but, in Kesler’s case, she was adopted by her foster family and credits her CASA volunteer with making that happen in a short period of time.
“I don’t know if I would have found my forever home if it wasn’t for CASA,” she said.
Helping kids in this way is what attracts volunteers to serve as a special advocate.
“The ability to interact one-on-one with kids, who obviously had run into trouble in their lives, not of their own making,” Heise said.
CASA volunteers come from diverse work backgrounds, often having served as nurses, teachers and in social service careers, and many are retired. They receive about 30 hours of training developed specifically for CASA.
Kesler said that anyone looking to help children should consider becoming a CASA volunteer.
“There are so many kids out there who need advocated for,” she said. “If you were going to volunteer for anything, I would think, that would be the one to go for.”
What makes a good CASA volunteer?
“Be curious, not take anything at face value, dig into records, ask probing questions,” Serratelli said.
Volunteers will work with the child or child group until their case is closed, usually about 18 to 24 months, and they will spend 10 to 15 hours a month working with the children, sometimes more.
Another way to help the organization is through financial donations. CASA of Dauphin County is a nonprofit organization, even as Dauphin County courts assign cases.
Pfau Laney said that its association with the courts has caused confusion, as people assume that it’s a county- or state-funded agency.
“This program can only exist if we are financially supported by the community,” she said.
CASA not only can blunt the effects of being in the foster care system for children but can offer them an opportunity to thrive. Kesler shows the evidence of that, as she plans to attend Bloomsburg University in the fall.
With a positive future ahead, she remembered being an 8-year-old in court and in the system. She paused before articulating her heartfelt feelings toward CASA.
“CASA made it all better,” she said.
For more information about Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Dauphin County, visit www.dauphincountycasa.org.
Photos by Dani Fresh.