CASA for Children Marks 15th Anniversary

Photo Provided
Susan Harrison, center, executive director of CASA for Children Inc. presented awards on Nov. 30 to, from left, volunteer Fred Rentschler, former employee Shelly Ernest and outgoing board members Heidi Kossuth and Lisa Hawrot. Not pictured is outgoing board member Carrie White.

Photo Provided Susan Harrison, center, executive director of CASA for Children Inc. presented awards on Nov. 30 to, from left, volunteer Fred Rentschler, former employee Shelly Ernest and outgoing board members Heidi Kossuth and Lisa Hawrot. Not pictured is outgoing board member Carrie White.

CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates — celebrated 15 years of  being “for the child” in Ohio County during a luncheon and awards ceremony Nov. 30 at the YWCA Wheeling, where it got its start in 2001.

With the motto “I am for the Child,” CASA for Children Inc. now serves children in four counties — Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler — providing volunteer advocates for children who are in the state foster care system because of abuse and/or neglect. The advocates meet with the children and families over a period of time and provide a report to the presiding judge in the case from the perspective of what’s best for the children. They serve their clients until a permanent home is found.

“There are so many variables that change when a child is in foster care,” said Susan Harrison, who has been the executive director for nine years, moving with the agency from its original home at the YWCA to its location on Jefferson Avenue in Moundsville in 2010. Those variables include the Child Protective Services workers, foster placements — each child goes through an average of three foster homes, changes in schools and support systems, to name a few.

“The idea is that the CASA volunteer stays the same from beginning to end. They always have that familiar face that’s advocating for them,” Harrison said Wednesday.

“It’s not about what’s in the best interest of me, the best interest of the Department (of Health and Human Resources), the best interest of the foster parent or the volunteer. … It’s about what’s in the best interest of that particular child. For me, that’s the only perspective we should be looking at, is the child’s perspective.”

About 55 people attended the luncheon, from CASA volunteers to honorees’ families to representatives of other agencies with which CASA works closely, such as Youth Services System, Crittenton Services and Marshall County Family Resource Network. Honey Loustau, who was a CASA volunteer for 11 years, was in attendance. Also attending were Kenny Hardaway, pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Wheeling, and Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger, both of whom serve as West Virginia CASA board members.

“We wanted to have the luncheon at the Y just to celebrate our roots and where we started. It was really nice to have (YWCA executive director) Lori Jones there because she was part of hiring me and certainly was my mentor when I was here,” Harrison said.

The honorees included:

— Fred Rentschler, who is retired from Brooke County Schools, has been a CASA volunteer for eight years. “He has served 15 children and spent more than 960 hours advocating for those children,” Harrison said. “He goes above and beyond and is frequently requested by CPS workers to be assigned to the children on his caseload. He also has done interviews and presentations to help with recruitment of CASA volunteers.”

Harrison said Rentschler, whose clients typically are Ohio County teens, has taken a batch of homecoming dresses to one of his clients living at Helinski Shelter so she could pick one out for the dance. He recently visited a teen in a group home in southern West Virginia for Thanksgiving and successfully has advocated for his return to Wheeling so he can work on reunification with his foster family.

— Shelly Ernest worked for CASA from 2011-2016 as a volunteer coordinator, and she is now the victim advocate at the office of Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith. “During her nearly five years with us, she supervised 54 volunteers and assisted 565 children in their journey through the foster care system,” Harrison said. She added Ernest was her right — and left — hand at the agency.

“Her work and the relationships she built in Ohio County were very important to our growth here. Being from the area was critical to the support we received.”

— Heidi Kossuth with Security National Trust; Lisa Hawrot with Spilman, Thomas and Battle; and Carrie White with West Virginia University Launch Lab, formerly with West Liberty University, were CASA board members for the past six years.

“They started with us when we were still part of the YWCA, were with us from our independence and expansion into the lower counties,” Harrison said. “Under their guidance we grew from serving one county to four counties, and 105 kids a year to 323 children in 2015.” The trio served the maximum of two three-year terms permitted by the by-laws.

Harrison said the nonprofit agency currently has 224 cases and has 33 active volunteers. Its funding comes primarily from  federal Victims of Crime Act grants, foundation grants and fundraisers. In addition to Harrison, the agency employs Erin Jordan, who replaced Ernest as Ohio County volunteer coordinator, and Marissa Bosley, an intern who will come on staff Dec. 19 as volunteer coordinator in Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel counties.

Harrison invited any local foster families, kinship families and adoptive families — whether or not they are CASA clients –to attend the CASA Christmas party at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Benwood-McMechen Housing Authority, 2106 S. Marshall St., Benwood. She asked anyone interested in attending to RSVP by calling 304-810-0952.

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