WELLSBURG - A total of 441 luminaria were placed around the Wellsburg Town Square and partly down Charles Street Monday, each representing a child involved in an abuse or neglect case in Brooke or Hancock counties and aided by A Child's Place Court-Appointed Special Advocate program.
It was the largest number of candles displayed during the annual event, which the group has held the last 13 years. It was the first time the luminaria extended to Charles Street, noted Rhonda Stubbs, executive director of A Child's Place CASA.
The nonprofit group trains volunteers to represent the interests of children whose parents or guardians face charges of abuse or neglect.
HOPING FOR BRIGHTER FUTURES — Rhonda Stubbs, left, executive director of A Child’s Place Court-Appointed Special Advocate program, and Jennifer Reitter, coordinator of volunteers, spoke about the group’s efforts to help children involved in abuse and neglect cases in Brooke and Hancock counties during a candlelight vigil held Monday on the Wellsburg Town Square in observance of National Child Abuse Prevention Month. - Warren Scott
Courts often order parents in such cases to undergo counseling in an effort to keep families together, with the children's safety an overriding factor, Stubbs noted.
CASA volunteers visit the families to determine if the parents are following the court's orders and the environment is safe. They deliver written reports on their findings to a judge who must determine what's best for the children.
Stubbs said the program's 23 volunteers are serving 105 children, the largest number since it was established in 2000, and there are another 43 children in the court system who could benefit from its assistance but more volunteers are needed. She blames drug addiction, particularly to heroin, for the increased need.
It's a concern echoed by Jim Penebaker, director of A Comfort House Child Advocacy Center, which assists law enforcement officers and staff with the state Division of Child Protective Services in interviewing children suspected of being physically abused.
The center provides a non-threatening environment for the interviews, which are recorded in an effort to prevent the children from being required to undergo repeated testimony, he noted.
Penebaker said the center conducts about 15 to 20 interviews per month. Not all lead to prosecutions - sometimes children are found to have been coerced - but at least 70 percent lead law enforcement to file charges, he said.
"The whole thing with drugs has been horrible. People on drugs make horrible decisions about who they let in their homes and around their children," Penebaker said.
He said Comfort House also is a nonprofit organization that depends on grants, contributions and fundraisers, including a concert at the Weirton Event Center planned from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. May 26.
The country-themed show will feature Abby Abbondanza of The Hillbilly Way, the Joseph Sisters, Pat Heiserman and Infinitely Distant. Tickets are $8 when purchased in advance at the Weirton Chamber of Commerce and $10 at the door. There will be drawings for a variety of prizes.
The goal for the vigil was to encourage the community to reduce incidents of child abuse. That means being a positive, loving influence on the children in their lives, as related in a poem, "Where the Children Grow," read by Stubbs. And it can mean reporting suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. Those attending were encouraged to press their hands against paint-soaked sponges to leave handprints on a poster on which was inscribed "Healing Hands, Not Hurting Hands."
The poster was suggested by Jennifer Reitter, the program's coordinator for volunteers.
In her second year as a CASA advocate, Missy Wenner of Weirton said she became involved because she had a rough childhood herself.
"I didn't want any child to go through what I've gone through," she said.
"It's rewarding because I get to make a difference in a child's life. Many of these children don't have a stable person in their lives and you can be that stable person."
Stubbs said serving as a volunteer advocate can be very satisfying but it requires patience and isn't for anyone. She added people can help A Child's Place CASA through other volunteer work and donations.
Recently Mike and Tina Thompson of Steubenville and their children were presented the group's Stick Your Neck Out for CASA Award for going above and beyond in aiding the program.
Stubbs said Mike chairs CASA's advisory board and he and his family regularly assist with events.
She said volunteers also are needed to help with tasks at the CASA office in Wellsburg and provide donations for its regular bake sales.
She encouraged anyone interested in helping A Child's Place CASA to call (304) 737-4444.