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Louisiana Center for the Blind acknowledges systemic failures in handling assault allegations



LOUISIANA – The National Federation of the Blind is launching a major restructuring of its internal policies and programming for blind children and adults in response to allegations of sexual assault against multiple male employees at its Louisiana affiliate, the Louisiana Center for the Blind.

In separate letters, officials at both the national organization and the Louisiana training center in Ruston acknowledged what one official described as not having “done enough within our movement and systemically within our community” in addressing complaints of sexual misconduct and abuse over the years.

In a statement Pamela Allen, the executive director of the Louisiana center, acknowledged the accusations. “I’m deeply sorry that members of our community have caused the harm,” said Allen, who is also the first vice president and board chair of NFB.

“Our hearts break for the survivors of abuse and sexual misconduct who have bravely shared incidents that have happened within our organization over the decades,” NFB President Mark Riccobono wrote in a Dec. 16 letter addressing the alleged misconduct. “During the past couple of weeks, a number of courageous individuals have shared painful stories about their experiences on social media and in individual conversations.”

“We deeply regret that over our eighty years we have not handled each situation appropriately or been able to heal the pain that such incidents create,” he added, saying he personally made “mistakes” in dealing with past “inappropriate behavior.”

The extent of the allegations is unclear at this time, but women have made accusations — ranging from rape, abuse and harassment — against at least three men affiliated with the Louisiana center. Others have made accusations of incidents happening at another NFB training center, the Colorado Center for the Blind.

Accusations involving the Louisiana center first gained significant attention in December, when one woman detailed her alleged sexual abuse at the Ruston training center in a public Facebook post. After that, many more women came forward publicly with stories of their own, tagging the posts with #MarchingTogether. Though many described abuse occurring in the last five years, NFB, the largest blind persons advocacy group in the country, acknowledges the problem is not new.

“For several years now, Federation leadership has endeavored to understand how to appropriately handle the difficult topics of sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse within our organizational structure,” NFB said in a Dec. 11 statement.

The Louisiana center, where several instances of alleged abuse took place, appears to have left much of the public response to the national federation. The center is one of three NFB affiliated training centers, which hold months-long programs where blind people can practice reading Braille, traveling with a cane and cooking and cleaning independently.

After Gambit left Allen, the Louisiana executive director, a voicemail, an NFB official called back and said the organization is considering a number of options to put an end to the history of sexual misconduct in its organization, including recommendations a group of sexual abuse survivors outlined in an open letter to NFB and the National Blindness Professional Certification Board last month.

“Although NFB and NBPCB both have codes of conduct and official mechanisms for handling such abuses, they are inadequate and not equitably implemented,” the letter reads. “Those who have come forward have faced retaliation for their efforts … Victims are often questioned and even when proof is provided, encouraged to remain silent in order to maintain the image of the above listed organizations and their affiliated agencies and programs.”

In that letter, survivors recommended both organizations implement clear policies on reporting and investigating sexual abuse that protects victims from retaliation by Aug. 31 and that an independent third-party agency handle such investigations. They also asked NFB to permanently ban anyone found guilty of sexual misconduct from leadership roles in the organization and from volunteering or working with young people or students, and to inform directors of both organizations and leaders the individual has been found guilty within 10 work days.

Additionally, they noted they would not deem click-through electronic training modules on preventing sexual harassment and mandatory reporting requirements sufficient in addressing the issue.

When asked if the organization was considering changing how it structures its training programs in terms of how much one-on-one access instructors have to students, the official replied, “I think everything’s on the table at this point.”

On Jan. 4, the organization announced it would be partnering with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a large anti-sexual assault nonprofit which runs a 24/7 support hotline, to revise its code of conduct and create a mandatory training program on sexual violence for its staff and volunteers that will begin in March.

The organization also introduced a “Survivor Task Force,” a team of six blind women who have experienced sexual misconduct or abuse that will advise federation leaders, members and partners immediately “until a long-term solution is identified.”

According to NFB, the role of the task force is to gather information from other survivors of abuse in the organization, recommend ways the organization can support victims of sexual abuse and develop recommendations for leadership “on creating a meaningful organizational culture shift.”

The Louisiana center has also laid out on its website several steps it plans to take including improved, comprehensive training, consulting with outside mental health professionals and a revision of its existing policies that is more “comprehensive and survivor-centered.”

The NFB official said it does not plan to discuss specific allegations due to “the privacy and respect for the survivors telling their own stories” and that its focus is on “what we’re doing going forward.” To that end, the organization said it plans to make regular public updates on its progress.

“The National Federation of the Blind, and all of our centers are committed to a safe environment that is free of sexual abuse,” the official said, “and our efforts going forward are going to be focused on making sure that that is the case in our organization and at our centers.”