A little over five years ago, the efforts of district judges, community leaders and other children’s advocates came together in the creation of CASA of Bee, Live Oak and McMullen Counties to help ensure that the needs of abused and neglected children were met.

After the organization was officially organized in November 2015, it began serving the children of Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties in early 2016. In 2019, San Patricio County was also added to the coverage area, ensuring children living there would have the volunteer help they need, too.

Since 2016, 154 cases involving 331 children have gone before the three district courts which serve the area, with more than 70 volunteer advocates representing children — making them their primary emphasis not only in the court system, but in helping stabilize and enrich their lives in other areas, as well.

Judge Janna Whatley of the 343rd District Court said having a local CASA group prioritize the needs of children has been an important accomplishment.

“This is something we knew we needed, and when Judge (Starr) Bauer was appointed to the bench (as 36th District Court judge) this was one of the first things we talked about. Judge Jim Huff (of Live Oak County) and Judge James Teal (of McMullen County) have both been extremely helpful through the process. They are forward-thinking and so helpful in giving a lot of information and helping get people involved.”

Whatley said Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties had previously been served by a CASA organization based in Victoria, but it was spread too thin.

“They weren’t really equipped to serve our rural areas, so it was important for us to have a local CASA serving the kids here,” she said.

A Corpus Christi based CASA served San Patricio County and was also spread too thin in meeting needs, so the Bee, Live Oak and McMullen CASA group was asked to open a Sinton office.

“CASA has made such a big difference,” Bauer said. “CASA volunteers are true heroes in our community and provide an invaluable service. Without them thinking outside the box and getting things done, the needs of children in this area wouldn’t be met nearly as well as they are.

“I am so appreciative of the things they do, the time, effort and resources they put in. It takes a lot of dedication. It’s a necessary service and a great service.”

CASA’s mission is to help children who have been abused and neglected find safe and permanent homes, and to look out for their best interests.

The need for a local CASA organization was magnified by the oil boom which hit the area about 2014, said Brenda Dees, who has served as the local CASA director since its inception.

“In 2014 we had a lot of people moving into this area because of the oil industry, and that also resulted in a need to serve children,” she said. “More than 200 children have been removed from their homes in Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties since then. CASAs look out for them. I am proud to say that so far 100 percent of those children have been served by a local advocate.”

Supporting Whatley and Bauer in their mission to form a local CASA group was 156th District Court Judge Patrick Flannigan.

“The three local district judges saw the need for it and they approached the newspaper (the Beeville Bee Picayune and The Progress) looking for civic minded people to start a CASA program,” Dees said.

She was hired as director of the three-county organization on Nov. 2, 2015, and the first class of volunteer advocates from the Bee, Live Oak and McMullen county group were sworn in two months later, Dees said.

“Since we started, our volunteers have donated over $600,000 in time, miles driven and gifts to the children of the area,” she said. “The heart of CASA is in the volunteers who serve the children.”

Of the abused and neglected children served, Dees said 85 percent who are removed from their homes have parents or guardians involved with drugs. CASA volunteers work with all those involved in the children’s lives to protect the children’s best interests, she said.

“The volunteers are able to do a lot of things that (Child Protective Services) can’t do because of time constraints,” Dees said. “They work for the children and communicate with those who are in their lives. They do whatever they can to serve as the voice of the children in court and help them to have a better chance at a brighter future.

“One of the things they work to do is to break that cycle of abuse and neglect so that things will be better for the children in the short term and the long term.”

While not everyone may have the time to serve as a volunteer advocate, everyone can contribute in some way, Dees said.

“We also need donations,” she said. “We are working to make sure 100 percent of the children in the community who need our help receive that help.”

For more information about CASA of Bee, Live Oak, McMullen and San Patricio counties, visit beeacasa.org or call the Beeville office at 361-542-4407 or the Sinton office at 361-587-3234.

•josborne@mysoutex.com•

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