Volunteers aid “overwhelmed” child welfare system
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A few months into Vince Wohlheiter’s assignment as the Court-Appointed Special Advocate for a 14-year-old Allentown boy, officials suddenly moved the teen to a new foster home.
When Wohlheiter showed up at the new address a few days later, the teen was genuinely surprised to see him.
“Vince, how the heck did you find me?” he asked.
“Hey, I’m your CASA,” Wohlheiter told him. “Where you go, I go.”
In an overburdened child welfare system marked by high caseworker turnover and a revolving door of people coming in and out of a child’s life, volunteers like Wohlheiter bring consistency. Armed with a court order that opens files and doors, CASAs act as the eyes and ears of Lehigh County’s dependency court judges and spend one-on-one time with foster kids.
The CASA program, based at the courthouse in Allentown and now entering its 16th year, is looking for about 15 more people like Wohlheiter, said Erin P. Hefferan, CASA’s executive director. Volunteers advocate for 88 children who have been removed from their parents’ custody, with dozens more on a waiting list.
“Vince is a tremendous volunteer,” Hefferan said. “We serve a lot of older youth who need a positive male role model, someone who is stable and consistent. Vince is all those things and more.”
Because of the opioid crisis and stricter child abuse laws, Pennsylvania’s child welfare system is severely strained. This came to light earlier this month as officials released their findings on the rape and murder of 14-year-old Grace Packer, a former Allentown girl who was killed by her adoptive mother and the mother’s boyfriend.
“The child welfare system as it stands today is overwhelmed,” the report’s authors wrote, noting that any changes would require counties to hire more child welfare workers.
Since they’re volunteers, CASAs don’t add extra strain to a county’s budget. More importantly, they keep foster kids from falling through cracks in the system, said Lehigh County Judge J. Brian Johnson.
“In the eyes of a foster child experiencing so much change and trauma, the CASA provides a consistent, stable relationship,” said Johnson, who oversees dependency hearings. “The CASA is unique to one child and ensures that the child’s voice is not lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy.”
Since Grace Packer wasn’t removed from her adoptive mother’s custody, it’s unlikely that she would have been assigned a CASA. But a growing number of children in Lehigh County could benefit, officials said.
In 2017, 232 children were removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse and neglect. By the end of 2018, that number jumped to 456 children.
Northampton County does not have a CASA program.
Wohlheiter, who grew up in the small central Pennsylvania town of Sunbury and came to the Lehigh Valley to work as an integrated circuits engineer, said volunteering with the program has been an eye-opening experience.
“This was a whole world that I didn’t know existed, of children being taken away from their parents and living in foster homes,” he said.
Wohlheiter, 75, of Allentown, began volunteering in the CASA program within months of retiring in 2003. The married father of two and grandfather of four said he chose CASA work because he was looking for a challenging assignment that would allow him to help kids while using the analytical skills he developed as an engineer.
“I was looking for something with discipline,” he said. “In this role, I’m required to write reports and attend meetings. It requires due diligence, which was important to me.”
CASAs are assigned one child or sibling group at a time. They read a foster child’s case file, speak to Children and Youth caseworkers, teachers and others in the child’s life, and spend time weekly with the child. They then write a report for the judge tasked with deciding if the child should return home or be permanently removed from his parents’ custody.
“Unfortunately, a judge doesn’t get to meet every child who comes before him, so being able to rely on someone who sees that child once a week and has developed a relationship with that child is invaluable,” Hefferan said.
While the majority of the program’s volunteers have traditionally been retired folks like Wohlheiter, more working adults have been stepping up in recent years, Hefferan said. Volunteers must be at least 21, be able to pass a background check and complete a 40-hour training program.
Wohlheiter has been a CASA for nine children over 16 years, spending an average of two to three years with each child. The long assignments mean abused children can become comfortable and may open up to a CASA, who has far more time than a caseworker to spend with them.
“I have one child to look out for while the caseworkers I’ve met are juggling 30 cases,” Wohlheiter said.
Pennsylvania has 18 CASA programs serving 24 counties, including Berks County. While few statistics are available about the efficacy of the program, CASA proponents say children in the program spend 7.5 fewer months in foster care than children without a court-appointed advocate.
For Wohlheiter, the satisfaction of helping kids through a tough patch in their lives far outweighs any sadness he feels when an assignment ends and he has to say goodbye to a child.
“It has not been as hard as I thought to close a case,” he said. “You want a child to feel that you were a positive influence, but you don’t want to be a reminder of some excessive hardship they had to go through.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com