This will be a special Christmas for the Dingman family of Unity.
The youngest of Tim and Sally Dingman's five children -- their 2-year-old twins -- were adopted in August. So those magical moments of watching a child's face light up on Christmas morning will take on added joy, even though Andrew and Emily have been with them since they were 7 weeks old in foster care.
"Until the adoption actually happens, you're always wondering whether something will take them away," said Mrs. Dingman, 43. "Now we're complete."
The twins were removed from their biological family because their parents could not care for them, she said.
And as the custody case wound its way through the Westmoreland County courts for two years, the twins had a special person by their side. Jennifer Cunningham, a volunteer with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, was named to watch out for the twins' best interests.
"I can't say enough about the CASA volunteers," Mrs. Dingman said. "Jennifer has been wonderful. She has been their guardian angel."
Mrs. Cunningham, 32, of New Stanton has a family of her own, including three boys, age 10, 8 and 6. She also has a full-time job as a program manager for Education Management Corp. in Pittsburgh.
But she loves helping neglected or abused children find permanent homes. She saw a billboard for the program along Route 30 in 2009 and has been volunteering ever since.
"I love it; there's a lot of joy in what I do," she said. "It can be a roller coaster ride; there is a lot of grief at the beginning. It's very hard to see a child taken from their [biological] parents, because, of course, they love their parents. But at the end, whether a child is adopted or reunited with their parents, there is a lot of joy."
The twins "were fortunate to be part of a really good foster family," she said of the Dingmans.
Mrs. Cunningham said she checks in on the child she is working with about 35 times during a year, or every 10 days. "Aunt Jen," as she came to be called, would visit with the Dingman family on weekends and evenings, or call the county Children's Bureau caseworker to exchange information. She visits with the biological family, too, to see if court-ordered parenting classes are being attended or parents are getting substance abuse counseling they need. She keeps in touch with social workers assigned to the case and attends a court hearing every six months.
The Dingmans are very familiar with the adoption process and the foster care system in the county.
"My husband and I have taken care of 12 children as foster parents since 2007," Mrs. Dingman said. "It's the best decision we ever made. We've adopted four, and the rest were returned to their parents."
The couple always wanted a big family, but couldn't have any more children after the birth of their oldest son, who is now 18.
Mrs. Dingman worked with a CASA volunteer when they adopted one of their two 5-year-olds, as well.
"I think it's a wonderful program," she said. "Volunteers give children a voice of their own, especially when they are little. They are making such a difference for kids, they are another layer of protection for them."
Program began in 2006
CASA was started in 2006, when Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Chris Feliciani saw a need for the child advocates. As a family court judge, he dealt with the tough decisions of removing children from their parents because of neglect or abuse.
Mandy Zalich, executive director of CASA in Westmoreland County, said, "Children's Bureau caseworkers often have 24 cases each that they are responsible for. So they can't devote the time one CASA volunteer does to each child. Our 56 volunteers may have just one or two cases, or children, to keep track of."
The Children's Bureau also has the goal of reuniting families. That might involve a parent seeking alcohol or abuse treatment, or attending parenting classes.
"Our volunteers work hand in hand with the Children's Bureau," Mrs. Zalich said.
The CASA volunteer will attend court hearing involving the child; meet with the parents and the foster parents, therapists; and read all reports and evaluations ordered by the court.
The court judge or master hears recommendations on placement from the CASA volunteer, as well as the Children's Bureau.
"The court gives a lot of weight to our volunteers' recommendations," Mrs. Zalich noted.
"There are between 250 and 300 children in the foster care system. By the end of 2012, we will have served 200 kids this year, so we do the more difficult cases.
"The majority of our cases involve neglect, or a lack of supervision by parents. And in the vast majority, we see either a mental health diagnosis or a parent with a substance abuse problem," she said.
Sometimes a child's teacher will pick up on a problem -- maybe the child comes to school with dirty clothes or is malnourished, she said.
The Children's Bureau investigates, and if the child needs to be removed, a caseworker goes to family court to take legal custody.
That's when the court comes to CASA to assign a special advocate.
"We sit in on the initial hearing," Mrs. Zalich said, "then we go out to meet the foster care family. We meet with a therapist and continue to meet with the child to develop a rapport so the child learns there is someone there to support them and learn about the biological family."
The court reviews the case every six months.
"Most of the time the recommendations from our volunteers and the Children's Bureau are the same," Mrs. Zalich said.
"There has been a dramatic decrease in the time these children are spending in foster care," she noted. Changes in court procedures and Children's Bureau procedures have speeded the process, she said.
In addition, the children hardly ever return to the child welfare system.
"So far, we have served 300 kids, and in only two cases have the placements not been permanent," she said.
The number of children served by CASA volunteers has increased dramatically in the past six years. In 2007, it served 12 children and had 15 active volunteers. By 2010, CASA served 110 children and had 44 active volunteers. And this year it will help about 200.
In looking at all of the Children's Bureau cases, about 80 percent of the children are reunited with their biological families, Mrs. Zalich said.
But since CASA volunteers get involved in only the most serious abuse or neglect cases, their rate for reunification is about 40 percent.
She said terminating parental rights is always a serious and slow process.
"The guideline is that if a child has been in foster care for 15 of 22 months, then the system should be looking to terminate parental rights unless there is a compelling reason not to," she said.
Children can be in the foster care system from birth to 21 years.
CASA is a nonprofit, with four staff members and an annual budget of $240,000. The county provides an in-kind donation of office space -- the agency is located in the courthouse. Most of the budget comes from fundraisers, which include an annual golf outing and a leadership breakfast in the spring. They also get grants from the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County and the United Way.
"About half of our volunteers are retired," she said.
Volunteers must complete 30 hours of training in child welfare laws, mental health, child development, and drug and alcohol abuse.
The agency needs more volunteers. The aim is to have enough to assign to each child in the foster care system.
Details: www.westmorelandcasa.org or 724-850-6874.neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: email@example.com.