County still unsure how to handle request by Mission Granbury

November 21, 2012

There is still a dispute over Alternative Dispute Resolution System (ADRS) funds.

For the second time, county commissioners last week tabled a vote on whether to allow Mission Granbury to use fees collected by the district and county clerk’s offices to hire staffers to recruit and train CASA volunteers.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. The volunteers provide a voice in the justice system for abused and neglected children who are removed from their homes.

Although Mission Granbury Executive Director April Mitchell said that giving the ADRS funds to the CASA program is allowable under the law, there are county officials who aren’t so sure. District Clerk Tonna Hitt is adamant that using the funds in that fashion is not legal. County Treasurer Kathy Davis said she, too, is concerned.

Lori Kaspar, who will become the new county attorney on Jan. 1, said she has not had a chance to research the matter, so as yet is not prepared to offer an opinion as to whether the funds can be used to assist the CASA program.

Back in May, Mitchell – along with a Fort Worth attorney – addressed the Commissioners Court, asking the county leaders to allow Mission Granbury to have the funds. They are collected through $15 fees assessed when civil cases are filed with the county.

At the time Mitchell first made the request, about $100,000 had been collected over a period of several years, yet not used. Eventually, the state claims ADRS funds if they go unused.

By law, the funds have to be used for mediation purposes. But before the money can be spent, the Commissioners Court has to set up a committee that includes representation from the local bar association.

The court as yet has not done so, but County Judge Darrell Cockerham said that efforts to form the group will take place in the coming days.

Late last week, Cockerham said he is still concerned that giving some of the money to Mission Granbury for the CASA program would go against the Texas Bar Association’s rules regarding Alternative Dispute Resolution. Those rules state that cases that are not appropriate for Alternative Dispute Resolution are cases that involve spousal or child abuse.

CASA cases involve alleged mistreatment or neglect of children.

Mitchell told the court in May that Mission Granbury would use the money to hire employees who would solicit more CASA volunteers to assist with growing caseloads.

But Hitt and Cockerham emphasized that, by law, ADRS money is to be used to create and maintain an alternative dispute resolution program, and they worry that paying salaries for Mission Granbury employees would be an inappropriate use of the funds. Hitt also said that expenditures of ADRS funds are supposed to involve cases specifically referred to mediation by a judge.

“These mediations are for the public,” Hitt said. “These are not mediations for Child Protective Services (cases).”

Hitt added that Commissioners Courts can contract with a third party for the purposes of administering the program, but that “one organization can’t come in and ask for that money.”

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