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Child advocacy program issues call for more volunteers and donations

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, May 3, 2012, 8:03 p.m.

Officials with Westmoreland County's fledgling Court Appointed Special Advocates Program on Wednesday called for more volunteers and a broader financial commitment from the public to ensure the effort's success.

"This is a chance for the community to step forward. For all those people who want to point fingers, these are the people I want to see line up and be a CASA volunteer," said Westmoreland County Judge Chris Feliciani.

Feliciani last year pushed for the creation of the program in which judges appoint volunteers who act as advocates for neglected and abused children. Each volunteer will work exclusively with either one child or one group of siblings for as long as they remain in the child welfare system.

Program supporters said the CASA program was born in the aftermath of the 2003 death of 4-year-old Kristen Tatar, who was starved to death by her parents in Armstrong County. She had been overseen by the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau for much of the first 2 1/2 years of her life.

Feliciani and others have said CASA could have saved Tatar's life and prevented her from being overlooked by caseworkers in both Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.

Officials estimate about 500 children are eligible for CASA volunteers each year in Westmoreland County.

Volunteers will act as a liaison between the child and the court system. They will have to complete a 10-week training session before they can be appointed to work with a child, said CASA Executive Director Rachael Lord.

Lord, who is the program's only paid employee, was hired earlier this year. Yesterday, during a news conference to update the program's startup progress, she said she has received 27 applications for volunteers and anticipates having as many as 15 people appointed to work with children by September.

Additional volunteers will require more staff.

To that end, CASA backers yesterday called for donations to support the program. The program is operated as a private, nonprofit agency and receives no operating revenue from the county. The county does provide office space, telephone and computer services to the program.

CASA currently has a budget of about $124,000, but to date only $70,000 is in the bank for this year. CASA received a startup grant of $150,000 over three years from local businessman Joe Shearer, plus an additional $20,000 in foundation grants.

Lord said she is looking for another $50,000 this year.

CASA board member Kory Smith yesterday called for public donations.

"We need financial support from the community. We have to give children a chance and get out the word for funding," Smith said.

Lord said donors or prospective volunteers may call 724-850-6874 for more information.

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