It's a rare privilege to help children stuck between a troubled family life and an overburdened court system that's trying to find them a stable home, say volunteers who work as court-appointed special advocates.
"There's nowhere else in our legal system where it opens its doors and says to a trained volunteer, "What do you think?' " said Melissa Protzek, executive director of CASA of Allegheny County. "It's a volunteer opportunity that has a tremendous amount of responsibility because you can recommend whether or not a child ever sees their parents again.
Volunteers are needed at county-based CASA for Kids chapters in Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland, say chapter organizers.
They are offering training courses, open house events and flexible hours in 2012 to those willing to help meet the nationwide nonprofit's ambitious campaign to match a volunteer to every child languishing in court systems because they don't have permanent, stable homes.
Pennsylvania has 67 counties, but only 20 have advocate chapters serving 21 court jurisdictions. There are 955 CASA chapters with 70,000 volunteers.
Officials with the nonprofit's Seattle-based headquarters tout academic studies that show children with court-appointed special advocates are more likely to be adopted, re-enter foster care less frequently and are less likely to be expelled from school.
The advocates serve children of any age and young adults up to 21. They interview family members, school teachers, friends, therapists and child psychologists who know or work with the child.
Many advocates attend parent-teacher and individualized educational program conferences for school-aged children. They field phone calls of praise and concern from school aides and principals.Their work can all become part of an objective report and set of recommendations the advocates produce for a judge, who makes the final decision about placement.
"The idea is to show (children) as a complete person to the court -- to talk about their lives, their likes and dislikes, what they're good at," Vivian Osowski, head of the Washington County chapter, said. "It can be challenging work. The judges usually assign some of the most horrific cases to CASA volunteers."
"The whole thrust is to find long-term permanence for kids."
Permanence can be hard to come by in the foster care system. Osowski's group worked with one 16-year-old girl who had made nearly 30 moves during her life. Osowski and Protzek work with children in addition to running their respective organizations.
Judges order children to be placed into foster homes or with family members other than their parents for reasons that include abuse, sexual assault, neglect and incarceration of a parent.
"There's no monetary reward, and most days it's what I call 'the dance,' where you move two steps forward and two steps back," said eight-year CASA volunteer Norma Bouchard, of Peters, a dental hygienist.
For Bouchard, the reward is improving a child's mindset so they can succeed.
"These kids think they really have no hope," Bouchard said. "I get to be the queen of optimism, and so I really hold onto their love and their hope so they can get there …