The Hood County News is partnering with United Way of Hood County on a series called “One Crisis Away.”
The purpose of the series is to highlight the importance of the services provided to the community by United Way’s 24 partner agencies.
Last year, those agencies served more than 40,000 people in our community. Many of those who needed services were making it on their own until life threw them a curve ball.
The “One Crisis Away” series will focus on real people with real needs – and the agencies that came to their rescue.
Shelly Burns was at her office in Stephenville when she received a phone call from her distraught husband, Bobby.
He was calling from the couple’s rural home near Lipan.
“His voice was so shaky. He said, ‘I’m going to have a heart attack.’”
Bobby told his wife that their fears about their 16-year-old daughter, Heather, were true. She was involved in a sexual relationship with a male teacher at Lipan High School.
After Heather had gone to school that morning, her father – searching for clues to the odd changes in her behavior – read her journal.
The sickening details were right there in black and white.
Bobby had been struggling to understand why his daughter had become so hostile toward him. He and his wife had been noticing for a while that she just wasn’t the same. The most alarming red flag was when she was caught shoplifting.
“I was out of control,” Heather admitted.
Shelly had gotten a call one day from the principal asking her to come to the school for a meeting with him and the superintendent.
The principal told Shelly that a story was going around about her daughter and a male teacher having a sexual relationship. Heather denied it to him, he said, and a check of cell phones had revealed nothing.
“I said, ‘Well,something’sgoing on with Heather. Since December, she hasn’t been the same kid,” related Shelly.
But Heather denied it to her parents as well.
Everything started to make sense, though, the morning Bobby Burns read his daughter’s journal.
Recalls Shelly of that day: “He (Bobby) said, ‘You get her from that school and get her to the house so we can figure out what we’re going to do.’”
At fifth period, Heather was summoned from her classroom. When Shelly began peppering her daughter with questions on the drive home, the teenager curled into a ball in the passenger seat.
After they arrived home, Shelly and Bobby phoned the Hood County Sheriff’s Office.
Minutes later, they received a call from investigator Ashley Rasberry, who works in the Hood County District Attorney’s office. She asked the family to come to the Justice Center.
After speaking with Rasberry and fellow investigator Robert Young, the trio wrote statements. Then, Rasberry took them to the Paluxy River Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC).
“That’s the first time I’d ever heard of them,” Shelly said of the CAC.
The agency serves abused children and their families in Hood, Somervell, Johnson and Erath counties.
On that awful day, Bobby and Shelly Burns felt their world had shattered into a million pieces.
But they would soon find that staffers at the CAC are exceptionally adept at helping families glue those pieces back together.
a classroom predator
At the CAC, Executive Director Kerrie Stannell managed to break through Heather’s wall of anger.
“I didn’t understand what I had done wrong,” said Heather, who is now 17.
Stannell got the teenager to open up about what had happened with her teacher and bus driver, Tyson Nolen.
Nolen taught world history and world geography. He was also the varsity baseball coach – a position of prestige and power, in Shelly’s opinion.
In addition, he drove Heather’s school bus. Oftentimes the two would be alone after the other kids had been dropped off.
It was during those bus rides, Heather said, that Nolen began confiding in her and talking about sexual things.
When abused children are interviewed at the CAC, representatives of law enforcement agencies, Child Protective Services (CPS) and district attorney offices are able to observe the interview on a monitor. This prevents the child from having to repeat a traumatizing story.
After Heather’s interview, the Burns family was taken back to the DA’s office. There, under Young’s guidance, a trap was set for Nolen. He walked right into it.
Heather phoned the teacher/coach on his cell phone. Unbeknownst to him, other ears were listening.
Shelly could barely hear Nolen’s voice through the phone, but she could nevertheless hear him telling her daughter not to admit to their inappropriate relationship.
“I just wanted to pull his scrawny head through the phone and choke him,” she said.
Nolen, 25 at the time, was arrested a short time later at school. He was charged with sexual assault of a child and having an improper relationship with a child – both second-degree felonies.
An investigation would reveal there had been at least two victims besides Heather. One girl was just 13.
Nolen had solicited the girls to send him inappropriate cell phone photos and videos. He, in turn, sent them sexually explicit photos of himself.
Bobby and Shelly were devastated. Bobby asked his wife if they should get a divorce so that Heather would be free of a male presence in the house. His absence might help her heal, he reasoned.
Thanks to Tyson Nolen, the Burns family was in danger of imploding.
But the CAC was there for all of them, not just Heather.
a family saved
Last December, a Hood County jury sentenced Nolen to 54 years in prison, without the possibility of parole.
During the trial, as Heather waited to testify, CAC staffers kept her occupied by playing games with her. They even brought her a Big Mac and a “monster drink.”
“They asked me the week before what I would want to make me less anxious,” said Heather. “It calmed me down and made me so happy.”
Said Shelly: “Almost the whole staff was there. They were just very supportive.”
The family needed counseling, but had no insurance. The CAC was able to help with that, too.
For a while, Shelly and Heather went to the CAC for weekly counseling sessions. They have progressed enough that those sessions are now biweekly.
Each time they go, Shelly is given a $10 gas card to help defray fuel costs.
Although Bobby did not partake in the counseling, Shelly said she was able to share with him the “tools” she learned from CAC Family Advocate Jessica Riggs.
The family has healed considerably, she said.
“I don’t think me and my dad would have the relationship that we have now,” said Heather.
She added that she had weekly assignments from counselor Layna Lankford to do nice things for her dad.
Shelly said her daughter has changed for the better. She is no longer acting out. CAC staff even worked with Juvenile Probation once it became clear that the shoplifting incident occurred during the time she was being abused by Nolen.
“I think (without the CAC), there would have been a lot more bad choices in the future,” Shelly said. “It’s 100 percent better than it was. I don’t know if my husband and I would still be married.”
Heather, who now attends school in Stephenville, is planning to attend college. She wants to major in criminal justice.
the beauty in healing
Stannell said people often ask if the work she does is depressing.
“Three-quarters of the cases are sex abuse. It’s awful,” she acknowledges. “But I always say that when it works, it’s so beautiful. It’s beautiful when you can wrap your services around a family.”
Last year, 368 interviews were conducted at the CAC, and 560 adults received at least one service from the Center, according to Stannell. Most of the cases, she said, are in Hood County.
In the coming year, the CAC will focus heavily on prevention services in the schools, she said.
The nonprofit, which has 19 board members, receives funding through United Way of Hood County, in addition to federal and state grants and fundraisers.
Shelly said she was struck by the way the various agencies worked together through the CAC to achieve justice and healing for the family. She was also impressed by the fact that many involved were women.
“There were so many strong women,” she said – from Rasberry at the DA’s office to key staffers at the CAC.
“I’ve never seen it work like this – and it was the CAC,” Shelly said. “When they sentenced him, I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to live in Hood County.”
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