While Covid-19 has impacted every facet of life, it’s also shown the tenacity of community members who step up to ensure elderly have groceries, local businesses remain above water and milestones are celebrated with drive-by parades. It’s no different at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Union County, the only nonprofit advocating for the best interests of Union County foster youth.

Amid shelter-in-place orders, the organization created an online infrastructure and protocols that ensured advocates could continue connecting with youth and reporting to judges, and staff could continue recruiting and training community members as advocates for the more than 500 local youth in care. The final challenge was swearing in new trainees, as quarantine made the traditional courtroom ceremony impossible. Turns out, oath-taking can go virtual, too. For the first time in the nonprofit’s 15-year history, newly trained volunteers were sworn in by a judge via Zoom, making them eligible to advocate for one or more of Union County’s most vulnerable: youth from birth to age 21 removed from home due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Presided over by Superior Court Judge Richard C. Wischusen during two ceremonies, as well as Superior Court Judge Marc R. Brown via Facetime for one ceremony, the first class, ages 23 to 68, includes parents and non-parents with backgrounds in real estate, sales, law, business and childcare. They are Georgia Brennan, Matawan; Stephanie Bush, Lara Gibbemeyer and Laurie Grossman, Westfield; Donna Isidron, Clark; Leslie Lewis, Westfield; Jasmine Manns, Newark; Kelly Noble, Scotch Plains; Simone O’Leary, South Plainfield; Sue Romano, Scotch Plains; Annette Ross and Charles Schafer Jr., Westfield; Phillip Tullman, Summit; and Alison van Orden, Helmetta.

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The second class, ages 26 to 69, includes parents and non-parents with such backgrounds as medical, real estate, law and human resources. They are Alexis Calabrese, Scotch Plains; Maria Curatolo, Westfield; Melissa Curtis, Berkeley Heights; Natalie Gomez, Elizabeth; Jo Ann Halberstadter, Scotch Plains; Stephanie Kilburn, Roselle Park; Maria Lorenz, Elizabeth; Sean O’Leary, South Plainfield; Caitlin Pappas, Summit; Donna Perch and Denise Sullivan, Westfield. CASA of Union County Executive Director Julienne Cherry of Plainfield, who joined the organization in March from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, also completed the advocate training and was sworn in.

Said Cherry, “While so much of life has slowed or even stalled, the urgency for CASA of Union County has ramped up. During times of crisis such as Covid-19 with shelter-in-place restrictions resulting in financial and other stressors, acts of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect often increase. There’s no time for CASA to rest with childhoods at stake. CASA volunteers provide consistency for youth disconnected from loved ones, friends, school and routines, and during a pandemic the need is exacerbated. They have continued to show up, albeit virtually, during a time when unknowns abound for these fragile youth. I’m excited to welcome these new advocates as they begin their journey.”

CASA volunteers have court-ordered access to youth, foster parents, doctors, caseworkers, therapists and teachers in order to identify concerns and protect best interests. To join the upcoming Summer or Fall training classes, contact Courtney at cgreen@casaofunioncounty.org.