The Listening Ear is the nation’s oldest all-volunteer crisis center.
It was founded on July 15, 1969 as a culmination of efforts between Michigan State University students, faculty and community residents. These individuals banded together in the hopes of doing something constructive in light of the unrest caused by the Vietnam War. It was decided that if 1,000 calls were received in the first three months, they would remain open. An astounding 1,500 calls came in the first month and the center has remained open ever since. This adds up to more than 500,000 hours of volunteer time and service provided to the community over the last 34 years. The Listening Ear strives to improve the quality of life in the community by providing 24 hour, anonymous, confidential crisis intervention and referral services free of charge to both telephone and drop-in clients. Most clients of the Listening Ear are from the Lansing/East Lansing vicinity, but there are no residency requirements to receive crisis services. Our organization receives calls from men, women, and youth of all ages who are experiencing crises, which we define as any situation in which a person’s normal coping mechanisms are unable to handle the situation.
Here is a copy of a letter the Listening Ear’s Board of Directors recently sent to CASART (Capital Area Sexual Assault Response Team) in response to CASART’s March letter, notifying the Ear that its membership in the organization had been revoked.
Dear community members,
There have been a lot of changes at The Ear in the past few months, and we would like to take this opportunity to give you a quick update on what has changed and what’s in progress.
Back in mid-May, it was brought to attention of The Listening Ear’s board that three active members of our volunteer staff were on the sex offender registry. The following week, the board used its ability to enact organizational changes when it told the three volunteers they would not be scheduled for upcoming shifts working directly with clients while the board waited on more input from other service organizations and a decision from the staff before adopting a new, permanent policy. A couple of weeks later, a permanent policy was passed by our staff and board, which stated that no individual listed on the sex offender registry would be allowed to volunteer in any capacity, and set out the procedure for conducting background checks. This policy was soon after strengthened to allow us to exclude individuals with a history of other crimes as well. We understand that many felt the process of setting down a new policy took far too long, and we apologize not only for failing to remain in alignment with best practices for service organizations, but also for how long it took to get a permanent policy in place.
Some of the biggest questions we’ve received since have been about policy changes – people want to know what policies will change and how the change will be implemented. The new background check policy, which can be found in the About section of our website, effectively prevents any person from joining our staff when they have a criminal history of violent crimes, including sexual assault and domestic violence. All current volunteers have received criminal background checks, and each new trainee, beginning from our Summer 2016 training program, has been required to participate. These background checks will be re-run on an annual basis for active volunteers.
We hope that the policy will create a quick and effective way to ensure offenders do not join our staff. However, we know that most violent crimes are never reported to the police. Those that are reported are rarely prosecuted or, if prosecuted, rarely result in conviction. We want to assure you that the Board and staff are committed to developing other systems to ensure offenders of violent crimes cannot join staff. Recently, our board implemented a temporary policy that will require volunteers who are privy to such information (through, for example, a self-disclosure from the individual) to bring these issues to the background check review committee. The committee will then assess the information available and make an appropriate decision. This is not yet a permanent policy because we are still in the process of talking to other organizations about how they handle these cases. We want to find the best procedure for fairly assessing this type of information and the best way to write that into policy. However, our board’s temporary decision on the matter will remain in effect until a permanent policy is added.
Others have been asking more generally about our policies as a whole. We believe that every organization needs to change and evolve with the community’s needs, and so we’re using the recent failure in maintaining best practices as a springboard to do a full evaluation of our policies. Our independent professional SAC consultant has already agreed to review all of our policies and procedures in order to help us see what other gaps there may be and to improve on what we have. Specifically, we are looking to create or strengthen policies that will ensure that the board remains fully aware of the organization’s processes, facilitate the continuous review of best practices, and clarify roles and responsibilities of volunteers in leadership positions. Simultaneous to this process, a strategic planning specialist from outside of the organization has also agreed to donate their time to make sure The Ear’s leadership and decision making process are as efficient and accountable as possible. We are also meeting with other social service organizations to get input on our policies and procedures, and we are planning on creating a regular feedback system for current volunteers.
Since we passed our background check policy three months ago, we’ve been reaching out to specialists and experts for help in reviewing every aspect of the organization, and we look forward to continuing to update the community as changes are made. If anyone else from the community with specific expertise feels like they could help us in yet another area, we encourage you to reach out to us. We value the community’s feedback. As an all volunteer organization, the best way to reach us is through our business line (517-337-1728). You will be directed to a voicemail system that is monitored daily. We have found that having a personal conversation with people is the most effective way to communicate, as it allows us to learn not only what your concerns are, but also where those concerns are coming from. We are also open to other forums in which we can have an open and productive dialogue.
We have been working regularly with other service providers in the community in an effort to regain trust and repair the relationship with our community partners. We hope to regain the trust of those in the community who felt betrayed by us. Since 1969, The Listening Ear has provided free crisis intervention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We value the opportunity to serve our community, and we appreciate the opportunity to grow as an organization.
Following tonight’s board meeting, the Board of Directors of the Listening Ear Crisis Intervention Center would like to issue the following apology:
On behalf of the organization, The Listening Ear’s Board of Directors would like to apologize to the Lansing community for the distress they have felt. We apologize to the individuals who were triggered and to community members for the anger and loss of trust they have experienced. We also want apologize to the volunteers who previously had not known about the registered sex offenders volunteering on our crisis line. We value everything that each volunteer gives to the organization and the countless hours they dedicate to serve our clients. We have seen our community torn apart upon learning that we did not previously implement background checks. We hear the concerns and value the input. We will continue to work with the community to help restore the faith that the greater Lansing area has placed in us for almost half a century.
We, at The Listening Ear, understand that some in the Lansing community have felt betrayed upon learning that three people who are listed on the Sex Offender Registry served as crisis line volunteers. We thank our community partners for working with us as we were in the process of updating our policy to be in line with current best practices for crisis intervention centers. We look forward to continuing to work with them in the community, and are committed to regaining any trust that was lost. We believe that the first step in rebuilding that trust lies in our organization’s actions and, as such, announce that we have passed, through consensus vote, a new policy today.
Effective immediately, all current and future volunteers are subject to a 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.
From the night that the issue of having people on the Sex Offender Registry as crisis line volunteers was introduced at an emergency board meeting, we have been working on creating this new policy. Given the seriousness of the issue, we felt it was important to discuss our policy with all of our board, staff, directors & coordinators, and community partners. We immediately confirmed that none of our Sexual Assault Counselors were listed on the Sex Offender Registry. The week after the board meeting, the three volunteers who were listed on the registry were taken off the phone lines while we were discussing the remaining details of this policy. Soon after, we began getting questions about these three volunteers from the media; at that point, we included the Greater Lansing Community in the conversation as well. We sincerely appreciate all the helpful comments we have received as we created this policy. We have heard your concerns and considered them in our decision.
We are committed to serving the diverse needs of our community. Having operated a 24/7 hotline for the Greater Lansing Community for the last 47 years, we take pride in providing this crucial and free service to those in crisis. For the past 38 years, we have also had the privilege of providing counselling services and medical advocacy for sexual assault survivors at no cost.
We appreciate the patience and support that we have received from the community. We recognize that the trust we are asking for will not come easily, but we are working to regain that trust and rebuild the relationships we hold so dear. In alignment with our commitment to transparency, we are, of course, open for questions. If you do have additional questions or concerns, we encourage you to leave a message on our business line (517-337-1728) with name and phone number. One of our coordinators will follow up with you within 48 hours.
We have included here some of our more recent or updated policies. It is not a complete list, but we are in the process of adding more information to our site and will include our full list of policies and procedures in the near future. Specific questions about The Listening Ear’s full policies and procedures can be directed to our business line (517-337-1728).
Background check policy and procedure
Policy: The Listening Ear Crisis Intervention Center will conduct background checks on all applicants. Additionally, background checks will be completed annually on all current volunteers. Individuals listed on the sexual offender registry will be excluded from any participation at the Listening Ear. Any current or future staff member whose background check reveals conviction(s) of felony or misdemeanors including, but not limited to embezzlement, fraud, assault of a violent or sexual nature, stalking, domestic violence, and violent misdemeanors will be reviewed by the Background Review Committee, (BRC), to determine whether or not they are eligible to volunteer.
Procedure: By consensus decision, a member of the Board of Directors, an at-large member of the volunteer staff, and the SAC Professional Consultant will compose the Background Review Committee. They will run and review potential trainee’s background checks. For those individuals whose background check reveals criminal behavior, the following considerations will be discussed to determine the appropriateness of that individual’s participation as a volunteer at The Listening Ear:
- The nature and gravity of the offense;
- The acts and circumstances surrounding the offense or conduct;
- Time elapsed since the criminal behavior occurred;
- Time elapsed since any sentence resulting from the criminal conviction is completed;
- Age of the staff member or applicant at the time of the criminal behavior, conviction or completion of the terms of sentence;
- Number of criminal acts attributed to the staff member or applicant the criminal history;
- The number of offenses for which the individual was convicted.
- Rehabilitation efforts (counseling, employment, education, training, successful completion of probationary requirements)
The Background Review Committee will be responsible for contacting training applicants whose criminal background makes them ineligible to volunteer with The Listening Ear.
The Board of Directors representative will be responsible for reporting to the Board of Directors the aggregate results of work done by the committee.
After initial background checks are performed, annual background checks will be run on all volunteer staff on the anniversary of their acceptance on staff by the Background Check Committee.
All background check results will be maintained in a secure, limited access site at the Listening Ear.