Starr Co. child advocacy center funding stirs controversy

With the Primary elections less than two months away, allegations against current 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar and his opponent, Gocha Ramirez, have intensified with the latest focusing on the creation of a children’s advocacy center in the county.

Funding for the proposed nonprofit, called the Butterfly Haven, was pulled unexpectedly, according to the group trying to launch it, who also believes this happened because Escobar allegedly intervened.

Dr. Daria Babineaux, a local pediatrician and a school board trustee for the Rio Grande City school district, is a member of the Child Wellness Network, the group behind the Butterfly Haven.

The Child Wellness Network applied for a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant for the center and in April were notified by the South Texas Development Council how their application had scored.

Among four applicants, theirs had ranked the lowest but still were recommended to receive a grant of $611,105.50.

However, a day after they expected to receive the funds, they learned the grant had been denied by the governor’s office.

In an email from the office of state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, it was revealed that the reasons for the denial included being contacted by the district attorney’s office, who informed them that:

  • the applicant was not in good standing with local law enforcement;
  • local law enforcement would not be making referrals to them, as they already have other groups that they work with that meet their needs
  • the director for the organization in question has been indicted for election fraud, a case that is still working its way through the court system.

Babineaux said the allegation that she was not in good standing with law enforcement was false and that they had received multiple support letters from local law enforcement agencies.

She also noted that the director referenced in the third point is Bernice Garza, the former crime victims liaison for the 229th District Attorney’s Office who wrote the grant application for them.

Garza, who Babineaux said was not actually their director, was arrested in January 2019 on voter fraud charges, and though her case was pending at the time the grant application was submitted, it was dismissed in November.

But whether those three reasons are true may be a moot point given the existence of the Ayuda Center, a facility launched by the district attorney’s office in Starr County with resources provided by the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo County.

Christina Green, chief advancement officer for the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, said the Texas Family Code states that a children’s advocacy center can only be established in a county if there isn’t one already serving that county.

“It’s our understanding that the application of this other entity mirrored what is required in the Texas Family Code of children’s advocacy centers, so it would essentially be an identical service offering and so it would be a duplication of service in Starr County,” Green said of the Butterfly Haven. “It would not be allowed, per Texas statute.”

Green added that the family code lays out what services a children’s advocacy center is required to provide.

“The family code is very specific in the way it defines children’s advocacy centers and the services that CACs provide and the partners that they’re mandated to work with and that they’re allowed to share information with,” Green said.

“Unless a center or nonprofit entity is a children’s advocacy center by statute, they are not allowed to share information or offer those services.”

Babineaux, however, said she believed there was still a need and the two days out of the week that staff from the CAC of Hidalgo County would be in Starr County for forensic interviews and exams were not enough. She hoped the Butterfly Haven would bridge that gap.

“I understand that they’re trying, I just don’t know what services they’re providing so we wanted to be that solution,” Babineaux said.

However, Escobar stressed that the Ayuda Center saw their first victim in January 2018. Prior to that, the center — which is housed in a former elementary school in Roma — was undergoing renovations which began only after they had a formal lease agreement with the Roma school district in December 2016.

“Their grant application has all kinds of issues,” Escobar said of the Butterfly Haven, “but the major issue, the biggest one, was that there were already advocacy services being rendered in Starr County by which grant funding had already been used.”

Despite the funding denial, Babineaux said they would continue pursuing other avenues to obtain funding for their center and provide victim services.

“Do I intend to go forward and offer these services? Yes. Even if I have to find private funding,” Babineaux said. “It’s just that we need the monies to start our center to offer our services. That’s our goal.”