Since 2016, a young 16-year-old teenage girl has worked with the Capital City Court-Appointed Special Advocates(CASA), which connects children in the legal system who have been abused, neglected or found in unstable homes with 60 adult advocates to represent them. In August that same year, Olive, a small poodle mix, began helping that young lady keep calm while at the Cole County Courthouse and during Judge Jon Beetem’s children’s docket.
“I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to me to see that smile as we walk into the hallway of the courthouse,” said Lisa Bax, Olive’s handler and CASA volunteer advocate. “That smile is what brings me to my passion of what we are doing; that split second and that beautiful smile. I think it is the same for Olive. She feeds off that body language from the child as well.”
More than two years ago, Lisa joined CASA and her mission was to get a therapy dog to help the approximately 200 children currently going through the 19th Circuit Court system. She was able to connect with CBS’ “Lucky Dog” host Brandon McMillan, an expert animal trainer in Los Angeles who rescues dogs, works with them at his Lucky Dog Ranch training facility and makes each canine ready for their new home or special job. Olive became the perfect fit for Lisa, CASA and the children she helps.
Now, Olive has helped more than 100 children and become a celebrity after being featured on McMillan’s show, her many connections she has made in the community and her recent work again with McMillan in a nationwide commercial for Cosequin, a vet-approved medical joint health supplement for cats and dogs, that aired during the Westminster Dog Show and released on social media in February.
“We have been in American Shoe and we have had kids come up to us who have watched the show and say, ‘This is Olive!’” Lisa said. “It is very sweet, and I’m so glad she is gettingthe recognition; she definitely deserves it.”
Lisa has always had a heart for canines, including her 10-yearold chocolate lab Diva whose personality “lives up to her name,” she added.
She has worked for Bartimus, Frickleton Robertson Rader law firm for nearly 17 years as the office manager of their satellite office in Jefferson City. A few years ago, one of the firm’s attorneys and a CASA board member, Mary Winter, encouraged Lisa to become a volunteer advocate with the organization.
“After I started working here, my passion for kids has been extreme. My husband (Danny) and I don’t have any children, and Mary said you would be so good with these kids, too,’” Lisa said. “I looked into it and did the training in early 2016, appointed by Judge Beetem that March.”
She started to see how a therapy dog could be a great icebreaker and tool in assisting the children. She regularly watched “Lucky Dog,” which airs Saturday mornings on CBS, and thought McMillan could help CASA find the right canine. Lisa first tried to connect with McMillan through his “Lucky Dog” websites and later by reaching out to Argus Service Dog Foundation he co-founded. With limited response, Lisa emailed McMillan once more to see if he could offer any advice. Then one day, her office phone rang.
“It was Brandon. He says he got my message and wanted me to explain to him again what we wanted to do. … We need something to be a resource when these kids are at the courthouse to be a positive distraction and give them unconditional love. He said he liked it but had never done anything like this before,” she said. “He said he would have producers contact me. … sure enough, they called.”
Over the next several months, Lisa went through lots of paperwork, interviews and other discussions with the show’s producers. McMillan also asked Lisa what kind of dog she wanted, knowing Labradors, Golden Retrievers and other similar breeds often make good therapy dogs.
Knowing the children who would benefit from a CASA therapy dog might not have socialized with animals before or could be fearful of a bigger dog, he suggested a smaller canine would work best. And he had a 10-pound hypoallergenic poodle mix that would be the perfect fit.
At one point, Olive had no home, walking the streets of Los Angeles alone. McMillan rescued her and began working with her, noticing some of her unique tendencies.
“When you hold her, you can tug at her ears, tail or fur, which kids often do, and she gives no response. There are no signs of aggression at all,” she said, noting McMillan also saw how Olive gravitated toward children. “He first thought Olive would be great for autistic children. Then, when he got my message and the volume of children she could reach, he knew she was the one for the job.”
McMillan and his team came to Jefferson City in July 2016, filming for three days and working with Olive and Lisa at her home Taos. He went over the seven common commands – sit, stay, down, come, off, heel and no – with Lisa and Olive, as well as performed a mock court setting with child actors and ran through typical scenarios.
Lisa worked with Olive for seven months after filming and got Olive’s AKC Good Citizen and therapy dog certification from Jennifer Winkelman at the MidMO Dog Training Center. Modifications and training with McMillan have continued since the show.
“To this day, he still keeps in touch with her because he built such a great bond during the time he trained her,” she said. “He said you are going to encounter many different variables and not all things will have to be the same in your training or you have to do it the same way. You make modifications with Olive to fit that variable and that need at that specific time. … We are always training and he is an intricate part of that along the way.”
After Beetem appointed and swore in the first trained CASA volunteer advocates on Jan. 17, 2011, the program, which was established and incorporated in 2009 by the Kiwanis Club, was able to assign volunteers. It became Beetem’s goal that every new case is given a CASA volunteer, which provides an independent voice for the child.
“Everybody involved with the case has a special legal reason for being there … and they are limited by law what they can and cannot do. … We are there for the child and are a voice in the courtroom to give Judge Beetem what is happening in his or her daily routine,” Winter said. “CASA fills a role that no one else fills and can speak for the child when no one else can.”
In most cases, a CASA volunteer is assigned to a specific child, following them through the process that starts when they are taken from their home and put into the judicial system in hopes for reunification with their family through to the next secure and stable path in their life. In Lisa and Olive’s case, they will service all of the children at some point during their visits in the court system. Lisa also serves as a mentor to the children.
“We are there as a consistent friend and mentor because they typically don’t have consistency in their life at that time,” she said. “Since I’m servicing all the kiddos with Olive, I don’t get assigned specific children. However, I have been assigned to advocate for two children recently. These two children have bonded exceptionally well with Olive and requested Olive make visits to school, the housing facility and documentation from Judge Beetem, who appointed us to be in those children’s lives.”
Olive and Lisa have clocked more than 50 hours since August 2016 just visiting children during Beetem’s docket. Olive has also attended an adoption hearing and helped in special juvenile criminal cases through the Cole County prosecutor’s office, sitting with the youth while they wait for court but not allowed to go in like other children Olive helps.
“I would like to see some court rules changed in order to allow a therapy dog on the stand with a child during a criminal hearing,” Lisa said, noting Missouri currently does not allow that unlike other states, such as Florida.
Through requests, Lisa and Olive visit with CASA children at the Great Circle, schools, family support team meetings, their homes and other outlets, make stops at the Prenger Center for juveniles, United Way board presentations, the 2017 Life of a Foster Child annual bus tour, Jefferson City Christmas Parade and Shop with a Cop at Walmart, to name a few.
“The CASA director may call and say hey, ‘I have a child sitting down at JCAC (Jefferson City Academic Center) that is having a bad day, can you go sit with them for a half hour?’ Or we may do a home visit for children in a foster home. … We are venturing into more of those type of visits now,” Lisa said.
Regardless of where Olive may serve, she quickly connects with the children she meets. Through McMillan’s initial help and Lisa’s continued efforts, Olive understands what a good home is like. She can empathize with the children going through the process and wanting that same stable home environment.
“She is an animal but she has a feeling of knowing these kids are experiencing hard times,” she said. “Somehow she knows how to plant a little kiss or nose snuggle, calming them down.”
For CASA, Lisa and Olive’s work has given a voice to the organization, which has often done its good work in silence.
“Having Olive here and what Lisa is doing with Olive has raised the awareness for CASA, so we do get more volunteers now. They know what CASA is and want to volunteer and support us. … Lisa took this seed that was planted, ran with it and made it successful. She and Olive have done a wonderful job,” Winter said.
When Lisa and Olive are not helping children, they are hiking, shopping, enjoying a Culver’s pup cup, hanging out with grandma or having family time with Danny and Diva. Olive has found her forever home, her forever mission and her forever family. Lisa feels the same way.
“For me, I found another best friend. … Who knew my new best friend would come in a small package,” she said with a smile.
For more information about Capital City CASA, call 573-893- CASA (2272) or visit CapitalCityCASA.org or on Facebook at “Capital City CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).”
There are many ways to support Capital City CASA. Become a volunteer advocate, donate to help expand services and aid in advocate recruitment and training, or attend fundraising events like the third annual Capital City CASA Golf Tournament on Monday, May 21 at Jefferson City Country Club.
Lunch and registration begins at 11:30 a.m., with tee off at 1 p.m. and an awards banquet following golf. The $160 per person entry fee includes a cart, prizes, lunch, golf and the awards banquet. To register, visit CapitalCityCASA.org.