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Unprecedented legal action against volunteer could have lasting consequences

In an article published by the Fort Worth Star Telegram on January 12, 2020, reporter Tessa Weinberg outlines how current Tarrant County 323 Family District Court Judge, Alex Kim, is waging a personal and political war on the critical role that local nonprofit organization CASA of Tarrant County (CASA) and its volunteers play in the lives of the abused and neglected children of this community. 

The article shared that Judge Kim has significantly reduced the number of children who are assigned volunteers under CASA and took the unprecedented step to hold one CASA volunteer in criminal contempt of court. 

In the nonprofit sector, most organizations use volunteers.  A volunteer being held criminally liable for noncriminal actions taken as a volunteer is rare, if not unprecedented, and could contain some cautionary lessons that should impact all of the sector’s volunteer recruitment, training and crisis management procedures. 

Shannon Bull is a 28 year-old Fort Worth native, business owner and community volunteer who feels the Star-Telegram article did not represent the full version of events regarding her involvement in this case. 

“I don’t want to throw CASA under the bus.  At the end of the day, I truly believe in what CASA does and that CASA can be a life-changing difference for kids. But, as the volunteer at the center of all of this, I think a few things could have been handled differently.” said Mrs. Bull.  

Over two years ago, Mrs. Bull and a friend decided to answer the call for volunteer child advocates by becoming a CASA.  Both busy professionals, they asked and were granted the opportunity to share a case involving a multiple-sibling group.

In the course of their work on this case, it was determined that the foster family needed some additional after-school support.  This need was discussed among all parties to the case: Child-Placing Agency, Child Protective Services, foster family, CASA Supervisors and CASA volunteers.  Initial efforts were unsuccessful at recruiting help and a member of the team suggested posting limited and non-confidential information on some of the community’s most popular closed Facebook Groups. 

It was agreed upon by all parties that Mrs. Bull had permission to make the social media post with the understanding that confidential information be excluded.  Shannon wrote the post and shared the content of the post with her CASA Supervisor prior to posting to ensure that the post was appropriate.  Mrs. Bull received permission from her CASA Supervisor to post it to social media. 

In the Star Telegram article it was represented that CASA was unaware of the post until it was posted to social media, which Mrs. Bull has evidence to contradict.  Expressed, written permission was given by CASA to Mrs. Bull to make the post. 

“This should have never happened to her. She should have never been put in this position, ” said CASA of Tarrant County CEO, Don Binnicker.

Additionally, the article referenced that the post was in violation of an existing CASA social media policy with inference that Mrs. Bull had violated that policy. Mrs. Bull contends that she had not been trained or made aware of any social media policy that covered the particular circumstances of this incident. 

“My anger and disappointed is muddled into one, I’m upset with Judge Kim of course, but I’m also a little upset with how CASA handled the whole situation,” said Mrs. Bull. 

A few days later, Mrs. Bull received a phone call from her CASA Supervisor making her aware that someone had informed Judge Kim about the post and asking her to take the post down.  She did so immediately.  

A series of phone calls and meetings followed between Mrs. Bull, her co-CASA and a myriad of CASA representatives, including the CEO, Case Supervisors and several Board Members, where Mrs. Bull was informed of potential criminal charges related to the social media post. Mrs. Bull was promised support and legal representation at no cost from CASA. 

Judge Kim filed criminal charges against Mrs. Bull, not CASA.  And, according to Mrs. Bull she was shocked that she was now legally and criminally liable for actions taken on behalf of and with the knowledge of CASA that carried a significant potential consequence of a $5,000 fine and/or 6 months in jail. 

CASA CEO Don Binnicker shared that they were as surprised by these events as Mrs. Bull and stated, ” We were caught by surprise. She did nothing wrong. This was unprecedented and unnecessary.”

Ultimately, Mrs. Bull retained her own personal attorney and in collaboration with CASA’s attorney, they were successful in getting Judge Kim recused and the case thrown out.  During the hearing, the presiding judge, Judge Stephen Ables, recommended to CASA that a comprehensive social media policy be created and implemented in their operations. 

“I did everything they asked me to do.  I handled it the exact way they asked me to, but it’s not lost on me that their counsel, advice and actions in this case were in their interest and not necessarily mine.”    

Mrs. Bull was disheartened when the article came out in the Star- Telegram because CASA never contacted her to let her know that they had been contacted about her case by the media.  She was disappointed that the article made it appear that she, the volunteer, acted without authority and violated existing policies/procedures of CASA. 

“It all comes down to communication.  Even in the beginning, I always had to question their motives.  Which is why I had to have my personal attorney.  I felt they [CASA] kept information from me – pertinent information that I had a legal right to know,” said Mrs. Bull.

Mrs. Bull was not removed from her CASA assignment and continued to represent the same children in partnership with her co-CASA until resigning yesterday. Since the hearing, Mrs. Bull has not been asked for feedback on the experience from her perspective nor received any additional new policies and procedures or any new training regarding social media or otherwise. 

CASA told DFW501c that they are currently reinforcing their existing policies and procedures and plan to reference this case in the recruitment, training and management of volunteers going forward.

“I feel really confused.  I do believe in CASA and that it can make or break one of these kids in the system.  There are absolutely such terrible issues with the system itself that a CASA can make a humongous, impactful difference. And I believe I made a difference.  I believe in my CASA kids and I want to be there for them and I don’t want to abandon them in any way. 

But on the other end of that I am weighing everything… I feel like when you are a CASA, you sign up for so much training and so many hours of volunteer work to be a part of this organization and then to put on top of all that what has occurred with our case and what has happened to me personally… you start to question how much can you take, how much time do you really have to do this. 

And when it comes down to it, I expect a level of reciprocation from CASA.  They absolutely made me feel like we were in it together, and even though I know that having me on their side was in their own interest too, but I’m still very shocked that the second they got what they needed, it feels like they don’t need to continue that level of relationship with me anymore,” said Mrs. Bull.

CASA expressed remorse in losing Mrs. Bull as a volunteer referencing her multiple years of service and excellent advocacy on behalf of her case. “We understand how this feels like a slap in the face to her and it was definitely an eye-opener for us,” said Binnicker.

Mrs. Bull believes that she was used as a scapegoat in Judge Kim’s personal vendetta against CASA and the only consequences of it will be less volunteers and more kids in need. 

About the author

Barbara Clark Galupi

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