Saturday, June 4, 2016

Heartbreak and Healing

To say that the last month has been one of the most stressful of my life, would be accurate.  It was more stressful than waiting to get into college or turning in my thesis.  And damn, that was a long paper... But the recent events of my involvement at the Listening Ear (details available here) and media coverage have showed me a lot about people.

When I knew I had to approach the board, this came after attempts to silence me and belittle the feelings I experienced. This came from the realization I had unknowingly shared a shift with an offender.  To learn to the man sitting next to you violated someone the way you were violated is cataclysmic.  You begin to question every aspect of your safety.  Especially when you find out several people knew this information and chose not to tell the rest of staff.  For me, this meant that not only was my safety violated, but that of every volunteer who is also a survivor and every sexual assault survivor that was ever referred to the organization.  I had an anxiety attack at work, and even slept with a hammer under my pillow because I felt unsafe.  And that is a quite a lot to process.

Calling an immediate board meeting, I knew leaving was my only option.  I was certainly not going to stay to be bullied or berated.  Following in the footsteps of my amazing friend Andy, who discovered the offenders, I am choosing to share the speech I gave to the board on May 11th.

The reason I called this emergency meeting is that it was recently brought to my attention that there are three registered sex offenders volunteering here.  The moment I found out, I was shocked.  Shock quickly turned to disgust as I considered that I unknowingly shared a shift with a person who did to someone else what was done to me.  I felt dirty, abused, and sick to my stomach.  This turned to feeling completely violated as I learned others had known about this information, and that it hadn’t been brought before the board or the staff.  Every person has the right to make choices for their own safety, and withholding information that would allow those decisions to be made is unconscionable.  That is taking the power and control away from each person, similar to a sexual assault.

The first thing that was brought to my attention by those who disagree with me is the idea of confidentiality.  The sex offender registry is public information.  There is no confidentiality.  Any Ear, or citizen with an internet connection can find this information. The information is available to people for safety reasons, and for the Ear to withhold this information from its own staff is terrifying.  When I discussed this with our staff coordinator, he suggested I talk to the schedulers to make sure not to be scheduled with any of them.  This is a fair suggestion, but this option is unavailable for the rest of the staff who are unaware of the information. 

The next issue is liability. The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 protects an organization and its volunteers from many things.  But it does not cover willful conduct or criminal misconduct. Quote “Thus, if a claimant establishes that the volunteer’s act or omission constituted willful or criminal misconduct that was a proximate cause of damage or loss, then volunteers could be held personally liable for the damages caused to the third party.” End quote. Moreover, now that the board is aware, if anything were to happen and the information not disseminated to staff, the entire organization would be civilly liable. 

Being a criminal justice student particularly on this issue, I can now share some statistics. Statistically speaking, 64 to 96% of sexual assaults go unreported. Recidivism on sex offenders is not as high as people believe but when offenders reoffended it was statistically more likely to be an acquaintance than any other category of victim. Once victimized, a survivor is 7 times more likely to be raped or assaulted again.  With this information, having sex offenders on staff while trying to be a place that supports victims creates a breeding ground of risks.  I would never willing put a survivor in a room with the man who assaulted me, unless they were aware he was an offender.

I came to this organization to heal from my assault.  If I had known at any time that sex offenders would be welcome here, I would never have chosen to volunteer here. I find it hypocritical that the Ear claims to be a supporting place for survivors, but allows offenders to be here. Our own center manual says this, “Any form of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault on the part of individuals associated with the Listening Ear (staff and board members, other volunteers, and employees) will not be tolerated. Sexual harassment and sexual assault are contrary to our mission of ending all forms of sexual violence against all people.” I suppose I interpret that differently than others do.  Imagine a scenario in which a walk in comes in looking for help dealing with the trauma of their past sexual assault, only to find their abuser is the one in the building? I never want to see the man who assaulted me ever again, and I know other survivors feel the same. 

Our staff coordinator went so far as to claim I was inciting a witch hunt.  Allow me to be clear, I do not want to ruin anyone’s lives. I am saying that based on their offenses, they should not be allowed to volunteer with this organization that claims to combat sexual violence.  Unless you decide to take that part of the organization out, it is hypocritical.  There are plenty of organizations to volunteer with, ones that do not claim to be a safe place for survivors.  This is not a job. This is not a loss of income.

The Ear is nothing but a trigger to me now.  I have not had a good night of sleep since Andy told me. I have intermittent eye twitches, and even had a panic attack at work.  I cannot bear to drive past the Ear or even enter the building, except to do this. Effective immediately, I resign from my position as board chair and from all other association with the Ear.  I am devastated that it has come to this.  I never would have dreamed in a million years that I wouldn’t be here forever.  But with the feelings of being unsafe and complete betrayal as well as my own moral and ethical obligation, I cannot continue a relationship with the Ear in any capacity. Since Andy was the one to inform me, I will now give the floor to him.

I am posting this on June 4th, and still no decision has been made.  The inaction of the Ear is slap in the face of the volunteers there, survivors everywhere, and the community. I know there are people in the organization that feel silenced from sharing because of the way leadership has handled the situation.  An organization that prides itself on sharing emotions is actually creating such an environment that their own volunteers don't feel comfortable sharing...

While this whole situation has been emotionally exhausting and stress inducing, there was good that came out of it.  First, that the community became aware and have showed amazing support to me and other survivors. After I take time to heal from this, I would gladly volunteer at any of these places. Second, I stood up for myself and didn't back down. This has not always been easy for me.  It took me a long time to feel strong and capable enough to share my story and who I am.  But often, you may not know the line in the sand is there until you cross it.  This was it.  I knew that I could not let this stand. And even as people belittled me or attempted to cover it up, I stood my ground. I never once doubted I made the right decision. Even as people I believed to be my friends turned on me. 

Lastly and most affirming part of this story is what I have learned about people close to me.  In offering their support, so many people in my life have shared their own stories with me.  To thank me for taking a stand and supporting survivors like them. If there was anything in the world that would prove to me that I made the right choice in any aspect, it is this.  

I will always fight for survivors.  After my assault, I made that my life mission.  To be the person that I didn't have.  The person who listens and offers support and help.  The person who tells you it isn't your fault and that you're not alone.  I will always be that person.  

"You don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking." -Maya Angelou