Pike Creates Court Appointed Special Advocate Program

Pike County has established a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program to advance the well-being of children in dependency court proceedings and help them find permanent homes. The program is scheduled to begin in March.

National CASA is a non-profit organization that aims to connect children being served by dependency courts with volunteer advocates who collect pertinent information about a child’s case to help the court act in the best interest of the child. CASA has been operating for over 40 years. It has 950 state organizations and local programs in 49 states with 93,225 dedicated volunteers allowing CASA to serve 242,236 children annually.

Retired Pike County Commissioner Steve Guccini was instrumental in bringing this program to Pike County and establishing a local CASA Steering committee, consisting of the Commissioners, Judge Kelly Gaughan, SWAN-LSI Paralegal Dawn Allison, and other community professionals. The Steering Committee completed the local chapter application with help from a Pennsylvania CASA representative. The application was approved in January 2022.

“We recognized the need for a program that helps to support children during what is already a very difficult time, said Commissioner Chairman Matthew Osterberg. “We see CASA as a tool to be utilized by Children and Youth Services as well as the Courts in order to set these children up to thrive by determining the optimal course of action. We as a community need to provide as much support, tools and resources that we can to this population.”

“Children aren’t asked to come into the dependency court system,” said Judge Gaughan. “Imagine yourself being lost in this world. These children need one consistent advocate. They deserve a voice.”

About CASA

Steve Gill, Program Specialist of Eastern Region PA CASA, attended the February 16 Commissioner meeting to share information about the new program. Gill covered topics including an introduction to CASA, its history, core competencies, effectiveness, and the volunteer application and screening process.

Gill explained that CASA is centered around best-interest advocacy and individualization. There is a focus on one person, one case, to allow the volunteer ample time to gather information that will help the Court make the optimal decision for the child.

Each volunteer is partnered with one child or family to serve as the child’s advocate. A CASA volunteer gathers pertinent information about the case by talking to the child, family and foster family and relaying the information to the Judge during Court hearings.

“In Pennsylvania, one of the advantages of having a Court Appointed Special Advocate assigned to the case is that less than one percent of children assigned to CASA volunteers re-enter the foster care system, as opposed to almost twenty-five percent of the general population of children in foster care,” said Gill.

In addition to finding the child permanency, the program has a significant positive impact. Children paired with CASA advocates see significantly improved outcomes academically and behaviorally in school and reported significantly higher levels of hope. “A child’s hope has been linked to academic success, overall well-being, increases in self-control, positive social relationships, and optimism,” Gill added.

“CASA advocates serve as an additional source of information because they have the time to cultivate relationships with the child they are serving,” said Judge Gaughan. “A Court Appointed Special Advocate is going to have one child or one family at a time. As Judge this helps me to make good decisions because I am getting a whole new layer of information.”

CASA of Pike County

Dawn Allison, a SWAN-LSI Paralegal previously working Pike County Children and Youth Services, was selected to serve as the CASA of Pike County Director. The local CASA Office is located at 105 West High Street, in Milford.

Allison is in the process of screening applicants to serve as volunteer advocates. To date, more than 20 individuals have expressed interest.

“There is no typical volunteer,” says Allison. “CASA volunteers are individuals from all walks of life.” Applicants will be rigorously screened and trained by their local program.

Prior to accepting a case, each volunteer is required to receive more than 30 hours of training, with an additional 12 hours of continued education annually. The trainings are designed by National CASA.

The first CASA of Pike County volunteer training begins on March 7. A swearing in ceremony for individuals who complete the training will occur on April 4.

To learn more about volunteer eligibility or to apply to be a CASA volunteer advocate contact Allison at dmallison@pikepa.org or 570-296-9827.

PHOTO ID: Back row: Steve Gill, Program Specialist of Eastern Region PA CASA; Marcia Reese, SAM, Inc.; Dawn Allison, CASA of Pike County Executive Director; and Commissioners Schmalzle, Waldron and Osterberg. Front row: Judge Kelly Gaughn; Nancy Clemens, SAM, Inc.; and Michele Burrell, Children and Youth Services Administrator.