SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Scotch Plains resident Karen Villareal is among the latest community volunteers to successfully train as advocates for Union County youth removed from home due to abuse or neglect, and now living in foster care. Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Union County is the only organization serving as extra eyes and ears for family law judges in an effort to protect best interests and ensure needs are met.

“I became a CASA to make an impact on children and my community," Villareal said. "Understanding a difficult childhood can impact a child long-term, I hope to provide a voice to a child who needs an advocate and positively impact their future.”

As she and her classmates arrived at the courthouse, Judge Richard Wischusen came from his courtroom to greet the waiting volunteers. Later, while on the bench during the ceremony, he commended each for their commitment to the community’s fragile child victims, and discussed the value of the CASA program to those children and case stakeholders, noting he always reads the CASA report and seeks their input during hearings.

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Volunteers with varied backgrounds make successful advocates and this class, ages 24 to 71, is no exception. Each brings diverse experiences, including an adoptee, an adoptive parent, former military, immigrants, nonparents and parents, retirees, full- and part-time employees, and undergraduate and graduate students. Professional backgrounds include education, retail, nonprofit, information technology and academia. Most had no prior knowledge of the foster system.

The final step before meeting their assigned foster youth is observation of seasoned CASA volunteers in court. Once assigned to the case, a court order grants access to the child, foster parents, doctors, caseworkers, therapists and teachers, enabling advocates to make informed recommendations in the child’s best interests.

There are approximately 500 Union County youth from birth to age 21 in foster care, and more than 200 are waiting for a CASA volunteer.

Contact Courtney at cgreen@casaofunioncounty.org or 908-293-8136 to learn more.

Group photo caption: Joining Judge Richard Wischusen, center, are Union County’s newest child advocates (l to r): Lisa Riley of Elizabeth, Anuja Bhamere of Berkeley Heights, Diane McCurdy of Mountainside, Adrian Lobo of Westfield, Guitry Banks of Jamesburg, Magdiel Rubiano of Elizabeth, Chris Tobin of Cranford, Victoria Utoh of Union and Karen Villareal of Scotch Plains. (Not pictured, Beth Rudnick of Westfield.)