Entire staff resigns at Burlington-area sexual assault support center

A screenshot of a photo on HOPE Works’ website.

An escalating labor dispute at Chittenden County’s main sexual assault support center led to the resignation of the entire staff Friday, leaving the future of the organization in question.

The eight staff members at HOPE Works, a nonprofit that supports sexual assault survivors from emergency response to ongoing therapy, walked off the job on Dec. 15 after victim advocate Lucy Basa was fired allegedly for calling the board of directors “comic book evil.”

The staff opposed a plan to sell part of the organization’s land and share a driveway and parking lot with local developer Eric Farrell. The staff members said the plan was a rotten deal between Farrell and board member Yves Bradley, a commercial realtor who was involved in the Burlington College debacle, and would undermine their efforts to create a safe and private space for survivors.

The proposal was ultimately voted down, according to a spokesperson for the board of directors, who said the board had a fiduciary responsibility to consider the plan and that Bradley had removed himself from conversations about it.

However, Basa’s firing was a breaking point for the staff members, who said the dispute was just the latest in an years-long effort to combat racism, homophobia, intolerance and intimidation among leaders of the organization.

“Their actions, and inactions, have shown us time and again that they do not in fact share the vision we have for building a better organization,” the staff members wrote in a Facebook post explaining their resignation.

“They have demonstrated that they have no intention — nor did they ever — of participating in this work with sincerity, empathy, or integrity,” they added.

HOPE Works staff photos

When staff members walked out more than three weeks ago, they presented a list of demands in order to return to work. They demanded the board of directors to be reestablished to include “survivor centered community members,” the reinstatement of Basa and the removal of Executive Director Cathleen Barkley, to be replaced by one of the senior staff members.

In tendering their resignations, the staff members said that none of these demands had been met. “As the staff are well aware, the Board has no interning of meeting any of these requests in order to resume services to survivors,” Robert Appel, an attorney for the staff, wrote in a letter to a HOPE Works attorney on Friday.

The board had asked staff to return to work on Friday after agreeing to place Barkley on administrative leave and appoint an interim executive director pending an investigation into the grievances that led to the walkout. However, the group of staffers said those changes were not a sincere attempt to enact fundamental changes to the organization.

The board hired Susan Leonard, a former human resources manager for the City of Burlington and Ben & Jerry’s, to oversee operations pending the results of the investigation. Laura Crandall, a management consultant, was hired to investigate the dispute. The board also brought on the public relations firm People Making Good PR for crisis management.

Nicole Junas Ravlin, a partner at that firm, said the board had received the staff resignations on Friday and was “working through a transition plan, which we are in the process of finalizing now.”

“It’s always been a possibility that these folks won’t be able to return to work,” Ravlin said, adding that between volunteers and “per-diem” clinicians, the organization was still providing critical services to sexual assault victims.

“It’s a shame that it got to this point and the board had remained hopeful,” she added. “Today, from a business and organizational standpoint, it’s is vital that HOPE Works continues to do vital work for community.”

The staff members who resigned included a team of three victim advocates, two clinical therapists, and others who worked on educational programs, development and data. The organization operates a 24-hour sexual assault hotline, sends advocates to accompany victims in the emergency room, and provides individual and group therapy and other support services to survivors.

The organization’s board said in a statement Thursday that “services provided to survivors have continued to be provided” during the staff walkout. However, the staff members and others in the community said services have been limited to the hotline and some advocacy work.

“They are putting a really incredible spin on the fact they are basically scraping by with the most basic hotline coverage,” said Kiona Baez Heath, the former advocacy services director at HOPE Works.

Zpora Perry, a social worker at UVM Medical Center, said one of her patients was unable to get in touch with an advocate recently after receiving threatening communications from the person who had assaulted him.

Perry said the patient was “still feeling quite unsafe and needing that kind of support.” With her help, the victim was able to get in touch with HOPE Works and obtain a voucher to stay in a hotel room. “They’re in a hotel room so that’s great, but they’re not getting any of the support,” she added.

Megan Cronkite, a sexual assault survivor who works as a medical assistant in a local health center, also said that the impact of the staff walkout — which she fully supported — has been felt acutely by victims.

While the hotline has remained open, she said response times to incoming calls has been delayed. She said there were no therapy, education or advocacy services to speak of, and weekly and monthly support groups weren’t being held.

Cronkite added that the notion that services could continue without the entire staff was “extremely disrespectful” to a group of highly trained professionals. “They have been profoundly impacted,” she said. “The onus is on the executive director and the board for the services that are not being provided.”

However, not everyone agreed with that assessment. Mark Redmond, executive director of Burlington-based Spectrum Youth and Family Services, which works with at-risk populations, said that he was not aware of any disruption to services.

“I have not noticed their services have been short-changed or anything wrong,” Redmond said, adding that he had nothing but positive experiences with Barkley during 15 years working in the same circles.

In a complaint filed last month with the Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, an umbrella organization including HOPE Works, the staff members described dozens of occasions on which they felt bullied, disrespected and hurt by Barkley.

“The staff of HOPE Work (sic) is choosing to whistleblow on Cathleen Barkley’s toxic, manipulative, abusive, retaliatory, homo/queer phobic, and white supremacist leadership style,” the grievance said.

Staff said Barkley removed queer and trans staff from leadership positions when they disagreed with her, fired queer staff without cause and refused to intervene in racist communications between board member and staff, among other claims.

Barkley did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday afternoon.

Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network, said she was concerned about how the work stoppage was impacting services. The network had offered to help improve the situation at HOPE Works a few times, but was not taken up on the offers, she said.

Other organizations in Chittenden County — Steps to End Domestic Violence SafeSpace at the Pride Center — provided similar services but didn’t have the same expertise as HOPE Works in sexual assault, Tronsgard-Scott said. Victims could also go outside the Burlington area to get help from Voices Against Violence in Franklin County and WomenSafe in Addison County, she added.

At least one HOPE Works funder had been pressuring the board to get the staff back to work. Chris Fenno, executive director of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services, exchanged emails with Barkley and Jason Tiballi, a HOPE Works board co-chair, about the situation in recent weeks.

“This work stoppage has the potential to put the grant funding in jeopardy,” Fenno wrote on December 21. “Please consider this as you go forward in your decisions in the handling of this situation. These grants may be terminated early if this situation is not resolved in a timely manner.”

Tiballi, an attorney, responded on December 27 saying the board was looking for an interim director, had started an investigation and hoped the staff would return to work shortly. If they didn’t, he said the board would commence hiring new staff.

Fenno replied on January 2 that her concerns remained and suggested making one of the staff members the interim director.

“That might get all the staff back to work and services being provided,” she wrote. “If staff are not willing to return, we may need to look to another provider for these services.”

Ravlin, the public relations representative for the board, said HOPE Works leaders would be meeting with Fenno and other funders in the coming days. “Every funder is vital to the organization,” she said.

In their resignation statement on Facebook, the staff members said they were hoping to continue doing anti-violence work that centered on victims living at the margins of society, though it’s unclear how they intend to do that.

“We are choosing to no longer spend our energy within an institution that has told us that anti-racist, trans inclusive, and queer ways of doing this work are unacceptable,” they wrote.

“We are choosing, as survivors of sexual violence, as Black people, Chicanx people, as trans people, as queer people, as mothers to say no to the master’s tools and yes to manifesting new ways of being in this work.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cathleen Barkley was dismissed. She was placed on administrative leave.

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Colin Meyn

About Colin

Colin Meyn is VTDigger’s news editor. He spent most of his career in Cambodia, where he was a reporter and editor at English-language newspapers The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, and most recently at Southeast Asia Globe, a regional current affairs magazine. He is a native of Maine and studied journalism at Northwestern University.