LEWISBURG - Susquehanna Valley CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) - Voices for Children is seeking volunteers to serve as court-appointed advocates on behalf of abused and neglected children in Lycoming, Northumberland, Union, and Snyder counties.

Children helped by CASA volunteers are from birth to age 18 who have been placed in foster care and for whom judges must decide upon a permanent home.

Candidates will be screened and interviewed by Susquehanna Valley CASA staff members and must clear detailed background checks. They also must commit to undergoing 40 hours of specialized training and providing 18 to 24 months of service as their assigned child's (or sibling group's) case progresses through the court system. In addition, they must complete 12 hours of in-service training annually.

Volunteers do not need prior experience. They will receive detailed instruction in courtroom procedures and effective advocacy techniques for children from judges, attorneys, social workers, court personnel and other experts and also will receive training in early childhood development, adolescent behavior and issues relating to child-sexual abuse.

Responsibilities include fact-finding for the judge overseeing the case by thoroughly investigating the current and background facts of the case; providing these facts in report form to the judge; advocating for the child's best interests in the courtroom; helping to facilitate communication among the parties involved and continuing to monitor all parties involved, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that a timely and appropriate conclusion that is in the best interests of the child is reached.

After completing his or her initial research for a case, a CASA volunteer generally spends approximately 10 to 15 hours monthly gathering additional information and maintaining contact with his or her assigned child or sibling group and other parties in the case. In addition to speaking to the child (or children) and parents involved in a case, a CASA volunteer generally also speaks to extended family members, school officials, health providers, social workers overseeing the case and others who have knowledge of a child's (or sibling group's) history. A CASA volunteer also reviews all records pertaining to the child, including school and medical records and caseworker reports.

CASA volunteers are not social workers or caseworkers who are paid employees of the county tasked with overseeing as many as 30 cases at a time, and who frequently are unable to conduct a thorough investigation of each case. They are also not replacements for case workers. Rather, a CASA volunteer is an independent, court-appointed advocate who has been sworn to represent the best interests of the child and who is able to make recommendations to the court that are independent of any state or county agency restrictions governing case worker recommendations.

In addition, CASA volunteers are not attorneys and do not provide legal representation in the courtroom. This role is handled by the attorney (or g ad litem) assigned to represent the child.

However, a CASA volunteer does provide vital background information that assists the child's attorney in preparing and presenting the child's case.

Unlike other court principals who may be reassigned to other cases, a CASA volunteer is intended to be a consistent figure involved in the proceedings, someone who will provide continuity on behalf of the child and who will remain with the child's case until it has been resolved in the child's best interests.

"Preliminary findings nationwide indicate that children who have been assigned a CASA volunteer tend to spend less time in court and in the foster care system than those who do not have CASA representation," said Judith L. Jones, director of Susquehanna Valley CASA. "Judges also have observed that CASA-represented children have a greater likelihood of finding permanent homes by the time they are 18 than those who have not had a CASA volunteer assigned to them."

Jones also notes a specific need for more men to take on the role of CASA volunteer.

"Nationwide, 82 percent of CASA volunteers are women and 18 percent are men," she said. "Because the population of children we serve reflects a much different balance, we are especially in need of male volunteers at this time."

CASA has been endorsed by the American Bar Association, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For more information or to apply to be a CASA volunteer, contact Jones at 570-988-2200 or judithjones@pacasa.org by March 21.