CASA in the Heart of Texas is in “desperate” need of new volunteers, and CASA statewide is planning a fall recruiting drive that will hopefully double the number of volunteers in a year, CASA executive director Michelle Wells said.

High gas prices are among factors that are reducing the ranks of CASA — Court Appointed Special Advocates for children whose futures have been placed with the courts — and reducing the amount of time volunteers spend with the children, Wells said.

CASA in the Heart of Texas, which serves Brown, Comanche and Mills counties, has 18 active volunteers for the 121 children currently assigned to the agency, Wells said. At the end of last year, the agency had 23 volunteers.

“If we had 60, that would be wonderful,” Wells said.

The volunteer ranks will increase slightly soon, as a training class with three volunteers recently began, Wells said. Additionally, three inactive volunteers will hopefully start taking cases again, and the agency’s administrative assistant plans to transition to working as a volunteer who sees children.

In 2007, a total of 34 volunteers reported driving 10,671 miles. Funds are available to reimburse volunteers who drive to see children placed in foster homes in other cities — in some cases, as far away as San Antonio or Houston — but those funds were gone after the first half of the current fiscal year, Wells said.

“When we think about how gas prices are affecting us personally, volunteers are giving unselfishly of their resources to meet the needs of these children,” Wells said.

“With the situation with the economy, it is difficult for volunteers to drive 100 miles to see children when they’re struggling to meet their families’ needs.

“We've struggled with being able to retain and recruit enough volunteers to keep up with the recent case load.”

At one time, Wells said, a higher percentage of children removed from homes were placed in local foster homes. Now children are being placed in foster homes “wherever (CPS) can find a home.”

She said that means CASA volunteers struggle to find the time to make an appropriate number of visits to the children. The number of visits that should be made “depends on the child and their needs” but ideally involve at least a couple of visits a month, Wells said.

The lack of volunteers also means Wells and her paid staff are having to work cases that would ordinarily be assigned to volunteers. Forty-two percent of the cases are being handled by staff, and the staff can’t spend the time they need with children because of other CASA-related responsibilities, Wells said.

“Part of what makes kids feel good about their CASA is that they are a volunteer,” Wells said. “(The staff does) our best to work with these kids but the premise of our program is volunteers.”

She said while the agency is “hampered and not as effective” by a lack of volunteers, the agency and its volunteers are committed to helping the children.

“Even though we desperately need more volunteers, the volunteers are doing a good job,” Wells said.