June 7, 2016; Detroit Free Press

Sometimes, even without recognizing it, our principles of practice come into conflict with each other.

A 47-year-old nonprofit in Lansing, Michigan is under fire for allowing three registered sex offenders to serve as crisis line volunteers, one in a leadership capacity. While the organization, The Listening Ear, has had a policy of “accepting all individuals for who they are now, and not who they have been in the past,” according to its media liaison Carly Geraci, they are now adopting “best practices” that include a background check on all volunteers.

A press statement released by The Listening Ear late last week said:

Effective immediately, all current and future volunteers are subject to background checks. No individual listed on the Sex Offender Registry is allowed to volunteer with us. As a result of this new policy, we have already begun running background checks on all volunteers, and the three volunteers who are listed on the Sex Offender Registry have been removed from their positions as crisis line volunteers and are no longer with The Listening Ear.

One of the volunteers in question said that he was not only an offender but also a survivor of sexual assault, and that he was volunteering at the organization specifically because of its “nonjudgmental environment.”

Andrew Dombroski, the former staffer who happened upon information on the volunteers’ criminal history while doing a Google search, informed the board chairwoman, and both later resigned when they felt their concerns had not been taken seriously. Dombroski told the Lansing State Journal, “I’m a firm believer of second chances, but there has to be a line.”

The line to which Dombroski refers is not drawn out in Michigan state law. The law requires individuals on the sex offender registry to check in with police regularly and prohibits offenders from activities that would bring them within 1,000 feet of a school. However, there is no law that prohibits offenders from volunteering for a nonprofit where they could conceivably come in contact with extremely vulnerable populations, such as survivors of sexual assault.

Michigan State Senator Curtis Hertel, Jr., was “horrified” by the news and immediately began drafting a bill that would make it illegal for sex offenders to volunteer at nonprofit organizations serving sexual assault survivors and children. In a phone interview with WLNS Channel 6 News, Hertel expressed his dismay: “I was actually somewhat shocked that this wasn’t state law already.”

He went on to indicate how unfair this is for victims calling in to the crisis line. “To think that they would then have to find out that the person they’re dealing with there was someone who had committed a sexual assault, I think is just really scary, dangerous, and should not be allowed.”

Hertel is not alone in his thinking. Several agencies, including Michigan State University, Eve House, The Firecracker Foundation, and Sparrow, have all cut ties with The Listening Ear, and several volunteers have left the organization.

The conflict of organizational principles in this case is a problem because it presented a clear and present danger to constituents. Crisis intervention centers serve some of the most vulnerable populations when they are at their most vulnerable. To say that the organization has a philosophy of “accepting people for who they are now” sounds laudable but is woefully insufficient as a justification in the face of that vulnerability. Further, the organization could have run background checks and still accepted those with a criminal history as volunteers. At least in that case, the organization would have known the three volunteers were on the registry list and precautions could have been put in place to ensure they would not come into unknowing contact with vulnerable populations by the nonprofit that was there to aid them.—Sheela Nimishakavi