York County seeks volunteers for demanding, but rewarding, child advocate role

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
Ann Mushendwa and Donna Creager, director and assistant director for York County's Court Appointed Special Advocates program, visited the Rotary Club of Eastern York County in 2018 to discuss the CASA program. From left are Creager, Club President Chris Leiphart, Mushendwa and Rotarian Bill Dress. Submitted.

When children are under the care or supervision of the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families, they often must adjust to frequent changes in their living situations, caseworkers, lawyers or judges.

The goal of the county's Court Appointed Special Advocates program is to provide children with dedicated volunteers whose sole responsibility is to ensure that the best interests of those children are being met.

"Since it’s a big responsibility, we have expectations and guidelines that must be met," said Ann Mushendwa, director of the CASA program. "It’s not always warm and fuzzy."

Volunteer court-appointed advocates are regular York County citizens who, after comprehensive training and preparation, are assigned one child-welfare case each.

They dedicate about 10 to 15 hours a month to their cases.

Court appointed special advocates are not replacements for CYF caseworkers, who do the best they can within the system but are sometimes handling up to 30 cases each in an incredibly demanding job. A recent switch to merit-based hiring at the county level is expected to make it easier for CYF to find qualified caseworker applicants to fill vacancies, which should alleviate some of the burden.

But the advocates are there to be a consistent presence in their assigned child's life. Having only one or sometimes two cases per volunteer allows the advocates to be wholly familiar with the circumstances of that particular child or family's situation.

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Advocates help make sure judges, lawyers and CYF caseworkers have comprehensive and up-to-date information at their disposal to make the best decisions for the welfare of each child.

They review court orders and referrals from CYF and follow up to make sure those requirements are being met.

Mushendwa provided the example of court-ordered periodic drug testing for parents. She said an advocate would follow up on that order and make sure those tests are being monitored.

Advocates also attend court proceedings and make sure the children are receiving all appropriate resources available to them. They visit their assigned children at least once a month, wherever the children are living, whether it's a foster home, a group home or with their own parents.

Mushendwa said volunteers do not need any background in child welfare, and there are court-appointed special advocates from all walks of life.

"We have people who have professional backgrounds, we have people who are stay-at-home moms, airline attendants, realtors, retired teachers, retired nurses, doctors — you name it," she said.

The next training course begins in mid-March and runs through May. Sessions are held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at the York County Judicial Center.

The curriculum covers everything from juvenile law and domestic violence to substance abuse, mental health and cultural issues.

There alsoare guest speakers, and the entire class will do a case study throughout the duration of the training.

Mushendwa said her office provides as much preparation as possible in the three-month training period, and the office staff is there to support trainees throughout the process.

Past volunteers have told Mushendwa that being a court-appointed special advocate is the most rewarding experience they've had but also one of the most difficult. Some volunteers have remained with the same child for years.

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"It is very hard to see children or families in these difficult situations, and sometimes the outcome that one would hope for is not necessarily the outcome that occurs," Mushendwa said.

She added that the number of people who graduate from training is lower than the number who began.

The CASA staff want every volunteer who enters training to fully grasp what they'll need to do if they take on this role.

"If that’s not going to work for them, we would prefer they figure that out during the training," she said. "We don’t want that to be one more person that’s in and out of that child’s life."

March 5 is the deadline to apply for spring CASA training.

For more information or to download an application, visit yorkcountycasa.org or call 717-771-9754.