As a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer, Jeanne Cerce works directly with children who have suffered abuse and neglect in Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County.
In Westmoreland County, the number of children placed within the child welfare system has grown each year since 2008 with 396 children in care in 2012. CASA of Westmoreland, a non-profit agency that provides volunteers to act as independent advocates for children who are in the court system due to abuse and neglect, has set the goal to provide advocacy to all of the children in need within the county. It is the only advocacy program of its kind in the community. Since its incorporation in 2006, CASA has increased its services and assisted half of the children in care in Westmoreland in 2012.
As a CASA volunteer since May 2008, Cerce serves as a fact-finder for the judge on children’s cases, establishes trust with children, speaks up for children in the courtroom, ensures that each child’s best interest is represented, and collaborates with everyone involved in the children’s cases. These children experience tremendous amounts of loss and there is often staff turnover with individuals involved in the their cases. Cerce stays with the children until they achieve permanency and are no longer in the child welfare system. She makes recommendations on the child’s needs and best interests, and ensures that the children do not slip through the cracks of the system.
Cerce has had a long-lasting impact on the children she has worked with and their families. One family remarked to the CASA staff that they would never have coped with the system and made necessary changes needed to get their kids back without Cerce. She worked with those parents to help them understand the system and make better choices, which showed everyone in the case how much they cared for their children. Through her advocacy service, Cerce was able to see these two children on this particular case happily reunited with their family. This is just one example of the lasting impact and inspiration that Cerce has had on others throughout her service with CASA.
In every case, with every child, with every family, there are numerous examples of how Cerce has made a difference in the lives of others. Cerce’s impact on the community comes through each of the small differences she makes every day in the lives of individuals. However, there is also the cumulative impact of ensuring that the children she serves have safe, loving, nurturing homes to guide them to be successful, productive adults. A CASA volunteer, like Cerce, can often be enough to stop the cycle of violence, not just for one child, but also for generations to come.