So it’s been a while, but I had to get this off my chest.
I was devastated to learn two days ago that the Listening Ear, an organization that I had volunteered at for the past seven years, has made a grave, perhaps fatal, error in judgment. It’s a crisis center that provides an anonymous and confidential hotline and a sexual assault counseling and advocacy program. In my time there, I have volunteered on the crisis line, as a member of the sexual assault counseling team and, for the past six years, as a board member. I happened to step down from the board on May 11 because of time commitments. Later that day, an emergency board meeting was held, at which point the board was informed that the organization had registered sex offenders on its staff for at least the past year. The three offenders had all told some people at the organization about their status before and during their volunteer training, but the decision was made among a small group of people that it was OK for registered sex offenders to volunteer at an organization that serves the survivors of rape. Furthermore, this fact was kept from the volunteers at large and also from others on the board of directors.
I didn’t know about any of this until the story broke on local media. To say I was stunned doesn’t come close to describing how I felt. Since then, my feelings have been all over the map. I’m angry that this situation happened in the first place. I’m embarrassed to have to say that even though I was on the board, I had no idea this was going on. And I feel deeply betrayed by an organization I trusted and that I put so much of my time and my work into. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I’m deeply hurt to know that an organization that should have been a safe haven for other survivors showed so much disregard for their safety. I’m so disappointed that these survivors weren’t given the agency to determine for themselves whether they wanted to get help from an organization that knowingly had registered sex offenders on staff. To sum up, I am utterly disillusioned.
I also want to say something in regard to background checks. I feel like an absolute idiot now, but it simply didn’t cross my mind before that the organization should have been doing background checks. The center has been in existence since 1969, so by the time I came along, there was a long history and establish process of how things were done. I “inherited” these things when I joined first the organization as a volunteer, and then the board. I’ve never had a job before where I had to request or conduct background checks, and I never needed to conduct one personally, so I have no experience with them. It’s so easy now, in hindsight, to see that I should have asked about this. But at the time, it simply did not occur to me. I feel guilty about this as well, and I wish so much that I had thought to ask about this before. I feel I’ve let down both the organization and the community, and I’m sorry.
Below is a copy of the letter I delivered to Listening Ear staff leaders and board members tonight:
Dear Listening Ear volunteers and board members:
I may have recently resigned as a board member, but having served the Ear for the past seven years — either as a volunteer or board member — I still feel I have a stake in the organization I put so much time and effort into. That’s why I hope that you’ll listen to what I have to say about the news that the Ear has allowed registered sex offenders to serve on staff, because my mind and my heart won’t let this go.
First, I want to reiterate some of what I said in my resignation letter last month. I do believe in the mission of the Ear. I do believe the organization has made a real difference in the lives of countless thousands of people. And I do value the skills and experiences I gained through being a volunteer there.
But there are some things in my resignation letter I very much want to take back. I am dismayed by the leadership’s decision to allow registered sex offenders to stay on staff, and I’m very deeply disturbed by the lack of transparency shown to staff members, clients and the wider community.
As a recent board member, I was shocked to learn through the media that staffers with a background of criminal sexual conduct had been volunteering at the Ear. First, I thought they had done so without anyone’s knowledge of their history. At that point, I thought this was an unfortunate situation that could be easily clarified and remedied. Then I learned the truth was worse: registered sex offenders had been serving on staff for quite some time with the knowledge of at least a few Ear leaders, but no effort was made to bring this up for discussion or to even notify other board members, volunteers or clients about the situation.
Again: No one brought this to the board’s attention until Alexandra did. The board’s job is to protect the organization. It was my legal duty. By withholding this information, you made it impossible for myself and other board members to do our job. I feel like I’ve been played for an idiot. I feel I need to apologize to the community. I’m at turns enraged, ashamed and tearful.
The Ear has made a grave error, and make no mistake, and the organization’s reputation and its future are in jeopardy. This is not the time to circle wagons. This is not the time to double down on a policy that has enraged people throughout the community. Your Facebook posts are making it worse by trying to garner sympathy for a registered sex offender instead of owning up to the massive breach of trust. This is the time to do what your name says: Listen to the concerns being raised and respond with urgency, taking immediate steps to rebuild the trust you lost.
Here’s what I don’t get. I know the Ear to be a place where the smallest changes are talked to death. I came to the staff with a proposal to offer low-cost counseling in the building’s unused rooms. It would have brought counseling services to people who couldn’t afford what other offices charged, it would have brought more income to the Ear and it would have helped staffers with state licenses in the helping professions gain hours and experience. It was like moving a mountain trying to make it happen. There were staff meetings upon staff meetings, board meetings, concerns raised about insurance and legal liabilities and room rental agreements and whether we were OK with offering services for a fee. I gave up, frankly, because I was being committeed to death. When Tashmika Torok came to us to ask for a place to get the Firecracker Foundation off the ground, she gave up after facing a similar wall of concerns about legal liability, insurance and privacy.
And yet here we have a very small group of people deciding for everyone else on staff AND the Ear’s clients that it was acceptable to have convicted rapists on staff. No discussion. No debate. No talk of insurance or legal liability. How did this happen? Who was it that decided they could make this decision for everyone? And moreover, who decided that other staffers didn’t even have a right to be notified? How did such an enormously bad decision get made in such secrecy?
Having answered the hotline for six years, I know people call in to talk about rape. Some of them are people who were recently raped, or who survived attacks long ago but are still struggling to recover. And there were others, masturbators, who called in to talk about rape because it was a sexual thrill for them. How am I to feel knowing that there may have also been people answering the phone who got a thrill from HEARING it? Or from hearing other volunteers disclose their own abuse? I cannot be OK with this.
As some of you know, I am a survivor, too. In fact, it was a training small group session where I first disclosed to anyone what had happened to me. It was such an emotionally devastating thing to do — I wound up sobbing on the floor and hyperventilating. I was able to do that because I trusted I was in a safe place. Will anyone ever have that same trust in the Ear again?
When going through SAC training, I was taught that one of the most important things we can do for survivors is to empower them to make their own decisions. And yet here, the Ear has done the exact opposite. By not notifying volunteers or clients that there may be registered sex offenders on staff, you took away their agency and their power to decide if they are OK with that or not. Up until this week, rape survivors could take it for granted that the Ear was a safe haven for them. Today? They can’t. And they may never be able to again, unless this situation is righted.
The Ear must decide who it serves and what its mission is. If you decide your mission is to serve your volunteers, then helping registered sex offenders on staff get a second chance and find redemption may be a noble thing to do. But if the Ear’s mission is to help rape survivors — which is what I understood the Ear to be — then a client’s need for safety must come first.
To registered sex offenders on staff — I know that I must sound judgey and very un-Earlike. I commend you for disclosing your status in the first place — it was the responsible thing to do. If you want to make amends, that’s an admirable goal. But the Ear isn’t the venue for that, in my opinion. The Ear can’t subordinate the safety concerns of its clients for your sake. It’s too much to ask. I hope you do find a way to make peace with the past, but I don’t believe it’s fair to ask to do it here.
Finally, I simply want to say how heartbroken and torn up I am over this. I’ve lost sleep. I feel utterly disillusioned and gutted. I hope for the sake of the Ear, its volunteers and the people who rely on you that you are able to take steps to rebuild the trust that has been shattered.
Board member 2010-2016