CASA going strong

Venango County President Judge Oliver Lobaugh swore in three new volunteers for the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program on Wednesday. The volunteers are (from left) Debra Beach, Jackie Hornbeck and April Rowland. Their admission marks 100-plus local residents who have been accepted as CASA volunteers since its inception in 2005. (By Judith O. Etzel)

It will never work.

There won't be enough volunteers

It can't last.

That was the consensus among Venango County officials when a new program, the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), was launched in 2005 to provide support for a child going through the court system because of a parent's or guardian's abuse or neglect.

It was a daunting task to entice volunteers to complete training, gather information about sometimes complicated court cases, appear in court and generally respond to a child's legal and social needs, all without pay.

A strong cadre of volunteers, intense judicial support, the cooperation with other agencies and more has some 14 years later drawn high professional praise across Pennsylvania and sparked the creation of other CASA programs across Pennsylvania.

On Wednesday, the Venango County CASA, a non-profit agency that has served hundreds of young people ranging in age from newborn to 21 years, hit a milestone.

Three new volunteers were sworn in as CASA volunteers in a brief ceremony before Oliver Lobaugh, the county's president judge, in the courtroom setting.

"We hit the 100th volunteer mark," said Cinnamon Evans, CASA's executive director who has overseen the program since its inception. "We actually went over it, now having 102 volunteers. And when we first started, they said it wouldn't work, wouldn't last. I said, 'watch me.' And here we are."

How it works

The child advocacy program stemmed from a need to help children who were moving through the county court system because of family issues. The volunteer, who works closely with staff from the county's Children and Youth Services department and the county courts, speaks exclusively for the children's best interests.

"So how have we kept CASA so vibrant, so solid? What is the secret?" asked William Cisek, a Franklin attorney who serves as CYS solicitor and CASA instructor. "Other jurisdictions just don't have what we have here. Cinnamon and Judge Lobaugh have transformed the dependency system and it is no longer so adversarial. That has been instrumental in having this be so successful. God has really blessed us with this program."

Cisek said the cooperation between CASA volunteers, attorneys, the judges and social workers who are handling cases involving children and their families is exceptional.

"The documents, the information, everything - everyone has it and it keeps the case moving in the proper way," he said.

CASA currently has 15 individuals who have completed training and are serving as court-appointed child advocates, said Evans, adding, "Our volunteers, including those who have come and gone, have been pillars of hope for our children."

To accommodate a growing number of cases involving children, two new staff members have been hired. They are Shelly Walters, program specialist, and Debbi Kimberlin, advocate supervisor.

"We have 125 kids who are dependent now," said Evans. "They are under court order ... because the parents were unable to take care of them, for one reason or another."

A 'remarkable reputation'

In swearing in new CASA volunteers April Rowland, Debra Beach and Jackie Hornbeck, Lobaugh said, "The reputation of the Venango County CASA in Pennsylvania is remarkable. ... It's a symbiotic relationship and I'm proud of that. It is outstanding. And it continues to be our goal to do good things to improve the lives of our children and their families."

The court ceremony also honored Elizabeth Staab of Oil City as CASA volunteer of the year and James "Mac" McFetridge, who is the volunteer with the longest term of service at 14 years.

Heather Faunce is president of the Venango County CASA board of directors. Kitty Richards is vice president and Allison Beers is treasurer.

Other board members are Bethany Cloonan, Lori Horn, Sherry Kulinski, Sean Moffatt, Mike Orrvick, Tonya Sharrar,and Joann Staub.

"All our volunteers have brought something very special to my life and to the program and to our children," said Evans. "I'm so pleased with what we have done and will continue to do."