It’s been nearly a week since the Bloomfield Health Department suspended volunteer operations at the animal shelter – and the tension remains high between the excluded volunteers and the management.
With accusations traded on Facebook, print media and most recently television, the fury shows no signs of abating.
According to a Health Department press release sent out March 16, the reason for the suspension was that the volunteer program needed to be “reorganized.”
This news quickly ignited a storm of protest from the volunteers, who insisted they were being deceived by shelter management and banned for personal, and sometimes discriminatory, reasons.
“How in God's name would volunteers working inside the shelter prohibit the health department from reorganizing the volunteer program? . . . It's all BS and double-talk,” wrote shelter volunteer Karen Banda in an email to Patch. “We [volunteers] all complain and are concerned about the same things but not everyone is willing to go on record with those complaints, for fear of being targeted as I'm being now.”
Banda felt she and other volunteers have been subjected to unfair treatment by management on many occasions in recent months, none more so that when her 87-year-old mother was banned from the shelter in February. Banda, convinced the ban was clear evidence of age discrimination, complained to Health & Human Services Director Karen Lore but never got what she considered a logical explanation. (Lore says the matter has since been referred to a Board attorney.)
Following the suspension of the volunteer program and a lack of response from Lore and township officials, Banda went public with the complaint. She and her mother appeared on the Channel 9 News Tuesday night and FIOS1 News Wednesday night, saying the shelter had singled out her mother unjustly. Lore defended her decision on camera, saying the issue was one of liability; Banda’s mother was not covered under the shelter’s insurance policy.
“The level of supervision that was needed we couldn’t provide,” she said. “We would be responsible if there was an accident.”
Off-camera, Lore says the volunteers’ outspoken criticisms and sometimes incendiary accusations have contributed to the breakdown of communication between volunteers and shelter management. Banda’s comments on the Facebook site, Save the Bloomfield/Bukowski Shelter, have been a factor.
“When I see something posted like, “Animals Held Hostage” – that’s not what’s happening,” she said. “You have volunteers going after the organization that they’re volunteering in. I’ve never heard of such a thing! ‘I’m going to do and say exactly what I want and there’s nothing you can do about it. And by the way, I’m still going to volunteer’.”
On Wednesday, Board of Health Officer Mike Fitzpatrick jumped into the fray, citing “a multitude of circumstances, difficulties and misunderstandings” that led up to the present situation.
“The issue of individuals saying stuff on Facebook and email is a symptom of the lack of understanding and tolerance [we’re dealing with],” he said. “Can you imagine volunteers at a hospital who went on Facebook and criticized what happened in the emergency room?”
But Banda remains unbowed. “I have a problem with censorship,” she declared. “How do we lose our civil rights by virtue of the fact that we’re volunteering?”
Not surprisingly, the public has reacted to the suspension and subsequent infighting with some bewilderment, as well as concern for the animals. The reactions on Facebook range from "Shame on the town for doing this!!" to "the bull in a china shop way of how this was handled -- by certain volunteers and others -- did not help anything or anyone. Maybe a little temperance and calmness (and less nastiness) would have helped."
Mayor Raymond McCarthy told Patch he supported Lore’s position.
“If you want to be a Little League coach you have to abide by the rules and regulations of the Little League organization, right?” he said. “The Board of Health is an autonomous board that sets their own rules and regulations. I think what [Lore] and the Board of Health did was absolutely the right thing to do. At the end of the day what Karen has done will make the organization better.”
That, says Fitzpatrick, is the point of the suspension.
“Let’s reboot,” he said. “It’s time for a new organizational system. Let’s create some clean, neat policies.”
Lore and Fitzpatrick say they are looking forward to developing an enrichment program over the next couple of months that will greatly enhance the shelter. Already the place has seen significant improvements over the past couple of years, according to both Lore and Banda, including expanded play and exercise areas, behavioral training to make the animals more adoptable and on-site veterinary care. “And the place has never been cleaner,” says Lore.
In the meantime, the question of what will happen to the volunteers remains in the balance.
Lore said she has a “great appreciation” for the volunteers and would not hesitate to accept them when they return, as long as "conditions are met," but volunteers like Banda and Pat Gilleran are not buying it.
“Volunteering at the Bloomfield Animal Shelter turned out to be the most frustrating and unnerving project that I have ever participated in,” Gilleran wrote in an email to Patch. “The Health Department does not value its volunteers and makes it as hard on them as can be imagined.”
For her part, Banda says she still doesn’t understand why the shelter took such extreme measures to shut out the volunteers.
“I’m mystified. All of us [volunteers] are. Here we are giving our free time, helping out for years. It’s heartbreaking and back-breaking work. For God’s sake, give us some respect.”
To see the Channel 9 TV interview click HERE.
To see the FIOS1 TV interview click HERE.