A few weeks ago, we covered the story of the Listening Ear, a nonprofit organization in Lansing, Michigan that ended up in hot water after discovering that three of its volunteers were registered sex offenders. The Listening Ear—more officially known as the Listening Ear Crisis Intervention Center—is a crisis hotline that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The nonprofit organization offers a "free and confidential service" for individuals who needs someone to talk to about depression, loneliness, grief, suicidal thoughts, or sexual assault.
Largely because of the Listening Ear's focus on sexual assault, the fact that three of the volunteers manning the phone lines were sex offenders ballooned into a major PR nightmare for the organization. The nonprofit assured callers and supporters that none of the sex offenders were responsible for taking calls about sexual assault. Still, that fact didn't stop the nearby Michigan State University from announcing that it would stop referring students to the Listening Ear hotline.
Now, the Listening Ear is opting to change its policies rather than continue to deal with bad PR. According to a report from Michigan Radio, the organization will start running background checks on volunteers immediately. The Listening Ear has been active since July 15, 1969, which means that it took almost 47 years for the nonprofit hotline to add background checks. As far as we know, though, there were never any incidents where the lack of volunteer screenings created a dangerous situation for a caller.
The Michigan Radio report quoted the Listening Ear's "media liaison," who said that the organization made a conscious choice not to require background checks in the past. She stated that the Listening Ear has always wanted to create "a judgment-free, non-discriminatory environment"—suggesting that vetting volunteers would conflict with that mission. After witnessing community backlash for this decision, however, the organization has now changed its tune.
"Effective immediately, all current and future volunteers are subject to background checks," said a statement posted on the Listening Ear's Facebook page. "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 existing three volunteers who listed on the Sex Offender Registry have been removed from their positions as crisis line volunteers and are no longer with The Listening Ear."
The decision is about as good as the Listening Ear could have done regarding damage control. Luckily, the organization didn't have any significant consequences to contend with, despite the lack of background checks for volunteers. (Not all businesses or nonprofits that fail to run background checks on employees or volunteers are so lucky.) Still, this situation and the media coverage it received has tarnished the Listening Ear's reputation, and it might take awhile for the organization to rebuild its trust with the community. For instance, there is no word yet as to whether or not MSU will resume referrals for the Listening Ear hotline.