WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County has joined 22 others Pennsylvania counties participating in a program to protect abused and neglected children involved in court proceedings.
And, the Court Appointed Special Advocate program and the county judiciary need the public's help.
"This is an opportunity for the residents of Luzerne County to be active participants in dependency court and the administration of justice," said county Judge Tina Polachek Gartley on Thursday when she unveiled the initiative, called the Luzerne County CASA program.
The program trains volunteers to be assigned to a child or sibling group and serve in the interest of those children to ensure a safe, permanent home is found. Dependency court is a branch of juvenile court that deals with placement of children who are abused or neglected.
Polachek Gartley said the program began in February when she and President Judge Thomas Burke were contacted by Dennis Hockensmith, executive director of the PA CASA Association, who was seeking grant money to begin a Luzerne County program.
"With hard work, intentions were made a reality," Polachek Gartley said.
A local office on Union Street in Wilkes-Barre opened, and Judy Jones will serve as the county's program director.
The office also has an administrative assistant, and now the program needs volunteers to help it grow and expand, Jones said.
"I will be recruiting, screening and training volunteers," Jones said. "Anyone committed to doing this from any walk of life that is willing to help children is welcome to volunteer."
Jones, who also works as program director in several other counties, said that in one particular county, the program has had a 98 percent success rate.
A judge presiding over dependency court depends on court advocates to gather information about the abused or neglected child or children involved. The judge relies on that person to monitor the case from its inception and report about progress being made.
"I don't doubt the program will thrive almost immediately," Jones said. "The demand will exceed how quickly we can grow."
Hockensmith said there are several other ways the community can help with the program if they are unable to donate the time needed to be a volunteer.
Hockensmith said that in about two years when grant money is no longer available, the program will be required to become a non-profit organization. Volunteers will be needed to make that happen, he said, so the program can continue.
Other ways include financial support through donations and spreading the word to others that the program is in need.
To date, Hockensmith said, there are 70,000 CASA programs in the United States that serve 250,000 children from 950 offices.
Research has shown, Hockensmith said, that children who are aided by CASA are more likely to be adopted, more likely to be placed in foster care and get services they and their family need.
Visit: 22 E. Union St., Wilkes-Barre
Additional information: Volunteers must be 21 years of age, complete screening requirements, a written application, personal interview, have three references and criminal background check.
Volunteers will complete 36 to 40 hours of initial training, and an additional 12 hours of in-service training each year.
Once appointed to a case by a judge, a volunteer will be committed to a case for at least 18 to 24 months, or until placement for the child is found.