Can a newspaper ad change a life? Secaucus resident Pat Belenski believes it can.
Last year she saw an ad from the countywide organization known as CASA, which stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The organization was looking for volunteers to advocate for abused and neglected kids in Hudson County family court.
A single mom working on her master’s degree in psychology, Belenski answered the call and signed up for CASA’s six-week training program at the Brennan Courthouse in Jersey City.
“What the child needs is going to vary from case to case.” – Pat Belenski
“I had heard of CASA, but never really thought about doing anything with them. And then I saw that ad and I thought, with my background in psychology and love for kids, it would be a good way to help.”
Many of the children who are given CASA advocates are in foster care and have been taken away from their parents due to abuse or neglect. They may be kids who have dropped out of school or who have a history of running away. Belenski said that although reconciliation with the parent is often a long-term goal, the immediate need is making sure the child’s physical, educational, and health needs are being met.
“What the child needs is going to vary from case to case,” Belenski noted. “Some of them may need medical care. But another child may need something else, say, getting back in school. Whatever they need, you’re there to make sure they get it.”
CASA started in the late 1970s when a group of 50 people answered the call to be volunteer advocates for children involved in family court cases. This led to what the organization has dubbed the “CASA movement.” According to CASA, there are now more than 68,000 children’s advocates who volunteer their time to 1,018 affiliated state and local programs across the country.
According to Belenski, who recently completed her CASA training and was sworn in as a court-appointed advocate on Feb. 17, the required training is condensed and intense.
Over the course of six weeks prospective advocates meet two nights a week, where they get training from family court judges, doctors, social workers from the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), and others. The advocates learn how to read court files and navigate the legal system. They also receive training on cultural diversity.
“There is a lot to learn” Belenski said. “But we aren’t just thrown in the court without support. If we need help or need to ask questions, there are people in the court system or in social services who can help. So, they support us in our role as advocates.”
Once training is completed, the advocates are sworn in by a Hudson County family court judge and then they wait for an assignment from the court system. Belenski, who wants to put her psych degree to work in either a school system or DYFS after she graduates this spring, is currently awaiting her first case.
Advocates are assigned one family court case at a time and they are required to stay with each case until it’s closed.
“CASA is a lovely organization,” Belenski said. “It’s a major time commitment. But for anyone that has the time, I would really recommend they get involved.”
Reach Hudson County CASA at (201) 795-9855, or visit www.hudsoncountycasa.org.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.