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Volunteer advocates offer consistency for York County children in flux
When Linda Yakacki first volunteered with York County's Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, she admits she was naive about the extent of child abuse occurring in the county.
A retired lab technician, the 69-year-old Springettsbury Township resident is one of 44 active volunteers who serve as the eyes and ears of the court in child-welfare placement cases.
With more than 300 children involved in these cases at any one time and volunteers typically working with one child, hundreds of children go through this "tragic" process without CASA, according to Donna Creager, the program's assistant coordinator.
"I have to read these cases, knowing I have no volunteers (available)," Creager said, pointing to several stacks of manila folders sitting on her desk. "Just in case (a volunteer becomes free), I'll know which cases to prioritize."
Yakacki, who began volunteering in 2015, said she is on her third case, with her previous two cases lasting about a year.
CASA volunteers are assigned to cases after a child has been found dependent — placed in the legal custody of the county's Office of Children, Youth and Families — by a court and, often, removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
As the next steps for the child are determined through the court process, the volunteers meet with the child at least once per month and report back to the court on their living conditions.
Yakacki said she probably spends about 20 hours per month on this volunteer work, factoring in time spent reviewing case files.
"The hardest part is jumping in," she said. "Meeting with all the players — caseworkers, parents, fosters, lawyers — it can be overwhelming, but I just take a deep breath and find out what's going on."
Creager pointed out that those other players are often moving pieces, leaving CASA volunteers to be the one constant in the children's lives during the process, which could last more than two years.
Yakacki said the turnover rate for CYF caseworkers has been high.
"At one point, I was with one caseworker for a home inspection, came home, grabbed some lunch and then got ready for another meeting, and the caseworker was gone," she recalled.
The state's county welfare agencies have come under scrutiny in recent years as caseloads have spiked and costs have risen.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale highlighted many of the issues in his "State of the Child" report last year, detailing that caseworkers are often overworked, underpaid and inadequately trained.
These factors have led to staff turnover as high as 90 percent in York County during a two-year period, according to the report.
Yakacki said she feels bad for the whole agency because she sees how difficult the caseworkers' jobs are and how much pressure they face.
Creager said she often notices the public commenting about the deficiencies of child-welfare agencies, and the CASA program is a way for them to be part of the solution.
That was part of why Yakacki became a volunteer.
"It was real, not just a nonmeaningful waste of time like (some other volunteer opportunities) I've seen," she said.
Yakacki said she always feels appreciated and respected by the judges and CASA staff, a feeling that can be elusive after retirement.
Creager noted that relationships with the children and families can, and often do, continue with CASA volunteers after the cases are complete — assuming agreement with all involved.
Yakacki said the father of one of the children she helped recently sent her pictures of the child playing happily.
"When I talk to other people (about CASA), they'll often say, 'That's great, but gee, I could never do that,'" she said. "I tell them, 'You don't cause (the children to be taken out of their home). This has already happened. You're just there to gather facts and see things through the child's eyes.'"
CASA holds training sessions twice a year with 45 hours of training required before volunteers are allowed to take on cases, according to Creager.
The next training session begins March 29, and the deadline to apply for that session is Friday, March 9. Applications can be found on the county's website through the courts and criminal justice tab.
— Reach David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.