Workers say agency designed to help others mistreated its own
Posted January 25, 2021 2:56 p.m. EST
Updated January 25, 2021 5:29 p.m. EST
There’s new leadership and a new human resources director at a leading domestic violence agency in Raleigh. With that change, former employees talked to WRAL Investigates about the need for change at the top, citing what they called a "toxic" culture at InterAct.
The agency’s board chair, Leigh Bleecker, cited the need for change following an internal investigation in response to complaints from a "third party." WRAL Investigates asked who that "third party" was, but Bleecker wouldn’t say. WRAL has reviewed letters sent to board members from multiple former employees who detailed what they felt was a harassing environment at InterAct dating back years.
The results of that investigation were never made public, despite a large portion of the agency’s revenue coming from taxpayer dollars. WRAL Investigates spoke to five former employees, some who were terminated, others who left on their own. Three of them talked on camera about their experiences and the need for transparency to current workers and the public.
"Absolutely toxic," described Kelliann Miranda-Green. "It’s not a place that people should feel afraid, should feel devalued," says Delana Epps-Avery.
Melissa McCurry says changes were constant at InterAct and not for the good. "I was seeing very dedicated people leave their jobs, leave their jobs without another to go to. It was that bad," she said.
All three women are survivors of abuse in their past personal relationships. They say the same about their former jobs at InterAct. The women were drawn to InterAct by the organization’s stellar reputation to help. That changed in 2015. According to Epps-Avery, "Everything changed for me immediately. It became a constant and consistent harassment."
They all point to Keri Christensen for the culture change; she became InterAct’s associate executive director. They contend she targeted certain staffers with rude verbal attacks and accusations.
"To go to work and have your director speak to you that way, demean you that way, undermine you," explains Epps-Avery. She contends she was wrongly accused of stealing bags from a program she created. The program gave domestic abuse survivors bags once they moved on from InterAct. Epps-Avery says she was also constantly criticized, despite more than a decade of solid performance reviews and promotions.
"Abuse, discrimination, racism," Epps-Avery says about the treatment of some employees. WRAL Investigates obtained employee letters sent to the InterAct board, which back similar claims. "I absolutely saw that there was a distinct difference in the way people of color were treated," says former intern McCurry, who started working there while a student at Wake Forest University.
Miranda-Green says she experienced racism first-hand. She described, "Insinuating I’m not entitled to a lunch break, but I’m seeing my Caucasian co-workers come and go as they please."
After years of employee complaints, the InterAct board hired an attorney who launched an investigation. The board promised a culture change last September, announcing that Christensen resigned and Executive Director Leigh Duque would retire in November of 2020.
The workers do credit the board for taking some action, but want details of the internal investigation released to the public. "They have a responsibility to let the community know what happened there," said Epps-Avery.
WRAL Investigates asked board chair Bleeker for a copy of the investigation’s results. She told WRAL News that the conclusions were delivered to the board orally, and there was no written report.
In a statement, Bleecker wrote:
"As we previously shared, InterAct learned of outside third-party questions about workplace issues at the agency last summer. To address these, InterAct proactively hired an outside, independent investigator to look into the matter. The investigation concluded in September and following an oral report to our board, we are taking steps to enhance our workplace culture and reinforce our values.
"We’ve been focused on hiring a full-time HR Director with expertise working with organizations such as ours and with training that will help us implement some of the changes moving forward. She will be starting this week and her efforts will include developing a work culture plan and launching a platform for employees to provide feedback and report inappropriate workplace behavior.
"InterAct remains committed to keeping our mission – and the individuals and families we serve – at the forefront of all we do. We will partner with our employees to continue to develop our cultures and values and we are confident that our interact team will continue to work together to ensure that our vital services continue without interruption."
WRAL Investigates also asked Bleecker, Kristensen, Kristensen’s attorney and others if they refuted the accusations by the former workers. So far, no one has done so.
Despite their bad work experiences, the women say they don’t want to tear down InterAct, but instead lift up the organization’s current staff and clients. "We want InterAct to be the safest place for anyone who is in that building," says Miranda-Green.