A program that saves millions of state and local tax dollars annually while working for children from troubled homes will come soon to Tazewell County.
All CASA needs to start is a downtown Pekin office and 50 to 60 volunteers willing to be the voice for abused and neglected children in court proceedings after they’ve been removed for their welfare from their homes.
The Court Appointed Special Advocates program actually will expand from Peoria County, where it’s operated since 2005, to various locations throughout the state’s 10th Judicial Circuit, which also includes Stark, Marshall and Putnam counties. Tazewell will have its own branch office.
“The ultimate goal is a safe, permanent home where the children can thrive,” whether it’s back home with parents who’ve learned the skills they need to raise their kids or by other means including adoption, Ryan Lacerna, who will operate the Tazewell CASA branch, said Wednesday.
Lacerna and Pam Perrilles, executive director of the newly named CASA of the 10th Judicial Circuit, spoke ahead of a news conference Wednesday in Pekin to announce the program’s expansion.
Since the first CASA program began in 1977 in Seattle, 950 branches have spread throughout the nation. More than 70,000 volunteers serve about 280,000 children each year.
Volunteers are sought in Tazewell and throughout the circuit to undergo training to become “the voice of the child in the court (system) and the (juvenile court) judge’s eyes, ears and boots in the field,” Perrilles said.
“They come from all walks of life – doctors, lawyers, teachers, stay-at-home moms, retirees,” Lacerna said.
“The one thing we look for is that they stay consistent and committed (and) see their cases through” to the child’s final placement, Perrilles said.
Each advocate, as a court-appointed officer, is assigned one child at a time to file a report every six months “on the conditions of the child’s (foster home) residency, medical and education needs, and making sure a judge’s court orders in the case are followed,” Lacerna said.
“They interview the child, her foster parents, biological parents and the (Illinois Department of Children and Family Service) caseworker” assigned to the case, he said.
“Most important,” said Paul Gordon, CASA Peoria office advocate supervisor, “we ask the child what his wishes are and convey that to the court as best as the child can express them.”
The work amounts to about six hours per month, Perrilles said.
That additional input has reduced the average time that CASA-monitored children are subject to court proceedings in Peoria County from 39 to 25 months, Perrilles said.
Last fiscal year, CASA in Peoria worked with 329 children and helped close cases in shortened time spans for 76 of them. The program estimates that saved about $3.4 million in tax-paid costs for their supervision, including foster parent stipends and labor by the DCFS.
“I’ll take that improvement every time,” said Judge Michael Risinger, Tazewell County’s presiding judge. CASA’s expansion “has been in the works for a year, but we had to await the funding it requires.”
Perrilles said a federal grant from an agency in the U.S. Justice Department of $494,000 over three years will pay for five new program positions and marketing costs to attract volunteers.
Those interested in volunteering can call the Peoria CASA office at 669-2939.