Sandy Spencer has always had a passion for children and it was this passion that inspired her to became a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer over 17 years ago, soon after the Susquehanna Valley CASA was founded.
She became one of the first groups to be trained in the program, with a mission to help children who are taken out of their home because of abuse or neglect. The advocate provides support for the child as they make their way through the stresses of the court system.
“They are in dependency court through no fault of their own,” Spencer said. “We are the eyes and the ears of the court.”
As the needs of children grew, Spencer watched the CASA program advance over the years. She remembers the first few cases she took nearly 17 years ago. While those first three did not involve drugs, every case since then has The first three were not drug related. After those first few, every time children needed to be taken out of the home it was related to a drug issue.
“There are ways that it’s gotten worse because when a parent or a caregiver is high on drugs and they don’t know what they’re doing, oftentimes they create all kinds of situations and trauma. All they’re thinking about is more drugs and not feeding the kids and not keeping them clean,” Spencer said.
The CASA program, or Court Appointed Special Advocate, is meant to be a voice for the child. When children are taken out of the home, it means the parents are faltering in some way, said Louisa Campana, case manager for CASA, who has been working with the group for seven years.
As a case manager, Campana oversees the volunteers and provides support as they work through the cases with the children.
Lycoming County has nine volunteers who handle 14 separate cases, however there are 57 cases of court dependent children in the county, according to Campana.
“We have 43 children who need an advocate more than anything right now,” Campana said, urging more people from the community to join the program.
“You’re not just working with the child, you’re working with the whole family,” Campana said. “The main objective is for families to reunify.”
Each volunteer takes on two cases, which can last between 15 and 22 months. The Susquehanna Valley CASA covers Lycoming, Union, Northumberland and Snyder counties. According to Campana, the time commitment for each volunteer is a few hours per month.
As an independent organization, CASA volunteers provide an additional set of eyes into the life of a child who has been taken out of their home. During the court process, CASA volunteers often offer key insight on when, or if, the child should be returned to their home.
“I want to see children live their best lives and families live their best lives,” Campana said. “This is the only way, because kids linger in foster care for years and years and years. And it’s not fair.”