The witness stand can be intimidating for anyone, especially children in already vulnerable situations.
From 2012 to 2016 there was an 80% increase in reports of suspected child abuse and neglect in Greene County, according to data released by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children: a nonprofit, nonpartisan and statewide advocacy group.
In Greene County, 155 children are dependents of the court, meaning they are court active and involved in the court system, said Stacey Courtwright, the director of Children and Youth Services. Out of that 155, Courtwright said, 116 children are in foster care and 63 percent of those in foster care are there because of parental drug use. The 39 remaining children are dependents of the court but haven’t been removed from their homes.
“We have one of the highest placement numbers in the state per capita,” Courtwright said.
An increasing number of children are coming through the Greene County courts and, as of November 30, they now have a voice, a support system and an advocate.
A national organization called Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) works to support and assist children of abuse, neglect or dependency.
On November 30, President Judge Farley Toothman swore in the first-ever class of CASA volunteer advocates in Greene County.
“CASA is part of the solution to build a more perfect county,” Toothman said as he held back tears at the swearing-in ceremony. “As volunteers, (CASA advocates) provide consistent adult presence until the child has a permanent home.”
There are now eight CASA volunteer advocates in the county. The group ranges in age, background, lifestyle and profession.
“CASA’s main goal is to reunify: to get a safe and permanent home for a child whose been in a previously abusive or neglectful situation,” said Becca Matchett, the program director for CASA of Greene County. “Volunteers go to foster care or homes and get to know the child and then be the voice for them. We are the ears and the eyes of the court.”
The process for helping the children will go as follows, Matchett said, Toothman will sift through the cases and bring the relevant ones to Matchett. The two will then go over the cases together, prioritizing the critical ones like cases of severe abuse and neglect or those children without family support like a grandparent. From there, Matchett will pair the children with one of the volunteers, based on compatibility. Both Matchett and the appointed volunteer advocate will attend every court hearing for the child and support him or her in and out of the courtroom.
Matchett noted, among this first class of volunteers, there is a Spanish-speaking volunteer, one fluent in American Sign Language, parents, nonparents, recent college graduates and those in retirement. Matchett said her goal is to one day have enough volunteers to cover every child abuse and neglect case in the county.
“We will be matching these volunteers to cases immediately,” Matchett said. “The diversity (in volunteers) allows me to match them to specific cases.”
This class of volunteers is the result of over a year of planning and recruiting by the CASA for Greene County Board of Directors. The board held information sessions and utilized social media to recruit volunteers.
Once this new class is settled, Matchett will focus on further recruitment then training. Another training session for the next class of volunteers will be in Spring 2019. She and Maura Kelly, the Pennsylvania western region program operations liaison for CASA, train each of the volunteers for 30 hours total over the course of several weeks. The training sessions cover what volunteers can and can’t do and explain situations the volunteers might find themselves in. Matchett and Kelly also tailor the training to meet the demographics specific to the county.
“Substance abuse is huge. That seems to be the main problem,” Matchett said.
Matchett also noted that the reentry rate is high in Greene County.
Reentry is, Matchett said, “whenever a child becomes a dependent of the course within 12 months of the case closing. That means the child has been sent back to their previous home setting and another issue arrives and they were reentered into care. That’s one of the things CASA helps with because we ensure the child is ready to go home and the parents are ready to accept that child.”
The CASA office will be in a donated space within the Fort Jackson Building. However, the space isn’t available yet, so CASA is operating out of the courthouse.
“It’s a fantastic program and an excellent tool for the court system and CYS (Children and Youth Services) as well,” Matchett said. “I’m incredibly confident it will bring positive change to Greene County and make a difference for children in this vulnerable state.”
If interested in becoming a CASA volunteer advocate, Call Becca Matchett at 724-833-2615 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on CASA of Greene County, visit its Facebook page: facebook.com/greenecountycasa.