Retirees work as CASA volunteers -- and advocate for kids within foster system

Delaware County's CASA volunteers work as advocates for foster children. Here, this year's most recent class of DelCo CASAs sworn by Dependency Judge Nathaniel Nichols. (Left to right: Robert Blasiotti, Karen Cohen, Dee Dunbar, Judge Nichols, Kate Rebillard, Brenda Greene, and Ken Hahr)

James Reynolds built a career over decades as a customs broker in Philadelphia. By the time he retired at age 62, Reynolds was ready to volunteer.

One night, he watched a Jeopardy! game show contestant describe her volunteer work as a court appointed special advocate -- also known as CASAs. They give voiceless children in the foster system extra help.

Reynolds perked up.

"Being a CASA really caught my eye. It was different from my life experience, and I would be working with people I don't run across in my social circles," he recalled.

CASAs  provide extra assistance for children in the court system. As specially trained officers of the court, they visit with a foster child at least once a month and have authority to speak to anyone involved in the child's life, from foster parents to teachers and doctors.

"CASAs are all over the country, and are very well-respected," he said.

CASA volunteers serve as the eyes and ears of the court and submit a report, with recommendations, to the judge before each court hearing. CASA volunteers are often the most consistent person in a foster child’s life and are especially valuable because they typically focus their time on one child or family at a time.

CASA in Media is a nonprofit that recruits, trains, and supports volunteer special advocates who work to ensure abused and neglected children in Delaware and Chester Counties’ Dependency Court system a safe, permanent, and nurturing home (www.delcocasa.org).

Today, Reynolds works with a 16-year-old young man in foster care who's attending a community college, but didn't have a laptop computer for his schoolwork.  

CASA "describes our job as 'investigate, facilitate, advocate, and monitor,' so it's not like I'm his personal adviser. When I see a need, I fix it."

Reynolds found a website called "OneSimpleWish" (onesimplewish.org) where he and his client posted the wish for a laptop. The wish was granted as a gift.

"We have one goal -- find out what the child needs," he said. "We're not supposed to buy stuff for them -- we can't become a parental figure or an adviser. We are their advocate."

Phyllis Slutsky, a resident of Narberth, echoes Reynolds. As a CASA volunteer, she's not a social worker. Instead, she's a problem solver -- together with a supervisor at CASA, the child's social worker or lawyer, judges, and the foster or biological parents.

Slutsky retired in 2012 from CHOP after 25 years as a nurse educator. After raising three children with her husband, she was ready to volunteer with families. She poked around a website called Retired Senior Volunteer Program of Montgomery County (http://www.rsvpmc.org), and saw a mention of CASA.

She contacted CASA in Media and signed up for the six-week training session -- two nights a week for a total of 35 hours. CASAs are also required to undergo background checks because they work with children.

"The training is very comprehensive -- including a basic overview of the foster care and child welfare system. Be aware of different cultural practices, too -- it's a big issue. In Delaware County, the foster child population is primarily minorities and the volunteer force is not."

As a result, she's been working on a diversity committee at CASA to encourage more men and more people of color to volunteer.

Her first clients were three brothers placed in foster care after their father was severely injured in an accident.

"It wasn't typical, since the majority of the parents have addictions or are abusers. In this role, I was both advocate and educational decision-maker. If the court appoints you to do that, you have legal ability to sign everything for school, communicate with the teachers, and even move them from one school district to another."

Slutsky made sure the older brothers, in the ninth and 11th grades, were placed in a STEM school in Chester instead of the local high school. She talked to the youngest boy's teacher every week. She also helped the single father get rehabilitation for his brain injury, so the family was finally reunited.

Her current client is a 14-year-old girl who's high-functioning but "has been passed around her whole life. Her last foster home was really bad for her -- so I advocated for her to find a new home where's she's much happier. As a CASA, you assess the situation -- you're never on your own, yet you lead the team."

What does she get out of her CASA volunteership?

"I did a lot of case management at CHOP. I know about harnessing resources, and once I was in retirement I could put my skills to use. That was the main thing I was worried about -- doing something useful."