Former employees assail operation of sexual-assault nonprofit

They find fault with its founder, Nassar victim Amanda Thomashow

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(This story was updated at 5:48 p.m..) 

Of the hundreds of alleged victims of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, one of the most prominent is Amanda Thomashow.

Abused by Nassar, a former sports doctor at Michigan State University in 2014, while she attended grad school, Thomashow has been recognized as one of the first survivors to push for an investigation. She was featured in the HBO documentary on the former MSU sports doctor and honored with other victims with an ESPY by the sports network ESPN.

Helped by the attention, Thomashow launched the Lansing nonprofit Survivor Strong three years ago to aid victims like herself.

But now that nonprofit is struggling. Board members have resigned, a key funder has cut off his contributions and staff and former clients have alleged ethical improprieties.

Former staffers point to Thomashow’s mercurial leadership as an issue. Among the allegations: a lack of clear policies and procedures — particularly related to ethical conduct with clients — and allegedly a blurring of professional and personal boundaries with staff where the personal needs of Thomashow have been treated as professional expectations, they said.

For example, “Susan,” who multiple sources said was the only licensed professional to have worked at the organization, befriended Thomashow a decade before her hiring. (Thomashow,  32, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, herself has no degree or certificates in human services care. However, she had worked for the state of Michigan reviewing grants for domestic violence organizations and assisting in coordinating and putting together conferences. In her role at the state, she said she watched hundreds of hours of training videos on working with survivors.)

Susan said that she “quickly” realized that the boundary between friend and employer didn’t exist. She was hired in March and fired in April while at Thomashow’s home assisting her after Thomashow returned home from a hospitalization. (City Pulse is protecting her identity at her request.)

When Susan and her husband attempted to leave Thomashow’s home, after spending hours caring for her, Thomashow exploded, both told City Pulse. Thomashow demanded Susan return the organization’s technology, accusing Susan of not being able to care for — or be sensitive — to the needs of survivors because she was unwilling to continue to stay at Thomashow’s home.

Both Susan and her husband described Thomashow as verbally “abusive” during the firing. And the event ended not only their professional relationship, but their friendship of about a decade.

Thomashow sat down for an interview with City Pulse last week in a Zoom meeting with her attorney, Kevin Winters, board member and local attorney Kelly McClintock and new board member Annie Haas. McClintock is one of two daughters of former Mayor Virg Bernero. 

“There are definitely a number of questions regarding clients and employee stuff that I think just, ethically, I can’t really talk about,” Thomashow said at the onset of the two-hour interview with City Pulse.

Haas, who just joined the board in July, also said that she understood that many of the nonprofit’s employees had been hired in part because of their friendships with Thomashow.

In two different instances during the interview, however, Thomashow cited this ethical barrier in discussing employees or clients then accused a former employee of criminal activity. She provided no evidence to support her claims, and the employee has denied the allegations and provided evidence that contradicts the claims. 

McClintock acknowledged that Thomashow is still growing into her leadership position. 

Thomashow said she “has an opportunity for growth.”

Another former client who was also a friend of Thomashow said Thomashow’s efforts to counsel her “made things worse.”

“She is all about the trauma bonding,” said Jennifer, which is a pseudonym to protect her identity at her request. Jennifer is a domestic abuse survivor.

Jennifer said she and her friend Samantha — also a pseudonym — were frantically trying to move out of a home that she shared with her abuser in late 2019. Samantha had been longtime friends with Thomashow, while Jennifer had met her “two, maybe three times.” They called on Thomashow to physically assist in moving Jennifer’s belongings into a new apartment.

Thomashow declared Jennifer a client. 

After the move, text messages from Thomashow to Jennifer began in earnest. 

Thomashow, from that point on, continuously encouraged Jennifer to share her traumatic experiences — over and over again. Thomashow would compare and contrast with her own traumas. Jennifer labeled this as “trauma bonding,” based on the label her therapist gave the relationship as she privately deconstructed the friendship with Thomashow.

“She always wanted to dig deep, even if you weren’t feeling it,” said Jennifer. “She always wanted to bring those emotions out and talk about what happened, and I realized now in the long run that was not what I needed. That did not help me. I think it made things worse. Her unsolicited therapy was not appreciated.”

On at least two occasions, Thomashow also asked Jennifer to move into her home in Lansing.

Jennifer said she declined both times.

Thomashow denied ever inviting a client to move into her home. City Pulse has identified one other active client who had stayed in her home.

On the day Jennifer appeared in 54-A District Court to testify against her abuser, Thomashow also took her out to lunch and offered her a full-time job at Survivor Strong.

Lauren Randazzo, 24, said she was hired last August to work on fundraising. When Thomashow was hospitalized this year, Randazzo said it was discovered that the organization’s unemployment insurance had lapsed due to nonpayment. It was also discovered the organization’s taxes had not been filed. This came after it was discovered the organization’s website domain — and emails — were both offline for failure to renew the domain registration.

In her interview with City Pulse, Thomashow concurred that the organization did allow unemployment insurance payments to lapse. She also said tax returns and filings, including the organization’s 990 forms, were still being reviewed by the accounting firm. She also confirmed the domain issues. 

When Thomashow returned to the office from a medical leave, Randazzo said she was relieved of working on a variety of projects, including taxes and unemployment insurance. Although it was her job to raise money, she was told not to worry about the budget because Thomashow had a plan.

“She told me I shouldn’t have had to deal with that stuff, and apologized,” Randazzo said.

In June, Randazzo was fired by Thomashow in a call that was recorded. Thomashow gave no explanation for the dismissal, only that Randazzo’s services were no longer necessary.

Randazzo received a letter from Winters, Thomashow’s lawyer, pointing out she was an “at will” employee, which means she could be fired without cause or explanation. The letter dismissed what it called “protections” that the letter said Randazzo had cited.

Another staffer fired by Thomashow was Zack Whaley. Whaley, 30, came to work for Survivor Strong from a management position at Best Buy to help strengthen the nonprofit’s policy infrastructure. He had some training through the Lansing nonprofit Firecracker Foundation in trauma-informed care with survivors. Although not legally required, he had no professional licensing or certifications in human services. He said he started the job in January and was fired in June.

Firecracker Foundation works to assist survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their families with recovery. The organization offers a wide array of services, including on staff therapists as well as referral therapists. 

Whaley said his firing came after Thomashow stopped communicating with staff. He said he went to her home, for which he had the security codes, with an emergency medical kit because he was uncertain what he would face since Thomashow had been making “concerning comments.” Whaley’s account was corroborated by Susan.

Whaley’s job ended over a dispute on how to fire two employees. Whaley said Thomashow had told him it was a board directive to fire the staffers, but he said she waffled for 10 days. Then he said she fired him after he allegedly failed to follow directions — which he said were unclear, at best.  

City Pulse obtained a recording of Whaley’s firing, which also largely corroborated his claims. The recording shows that Thomashow asserted a specific directive, but when notes from a previous meeting were reviewed by another employee during that conversation, no such directive appeared to have been issued. 

A former board member who resigned from the board, Tashmica Torok, specifically challenged the veracity of Thomashow’s board directive narrative related to the firings in her resignation letter. Torok, of Lansing, who founded and runs the Firecracker Foundation, declined to provide permission to republish her resignation letter, which City Pulse obtained from another source, or to discuss her resignation, except to confirm she had resigned and that her resignation supported Whaley’s claims.

Whaley has since been sent a “cease and desist” letter from Thomashow’s attorney for publicizing his complaints about Thomashow. Attached to that letter, which dealt with his email demands for his personnel record and COBRA, was a document Winters identified as evidence of Whaley’s inserting malware into the nonprofit’s computer system.

Whaley said he used an automatic feature of the Microsoft Teams program to monitor emails from users, which was set up about two hours after he was fired from Survivor Strong in June.

Outside IT experts consulted by City Pulse confirmed that the document was a Microsoft report, not evidence of malware.

Attorneys said Whaley didn’t “ethically” have permission to use the program after his dismissal.

In addition to Torok’s resignation in June, Mick Grewal, an attorney at Grewal Law who represents survivors of sexual assault and was a major donor of the organization, resigned from the board. Grewal said he withdrew from the organization because his time was being consumed by his legal work and he was frustrated by the lack of an organizational business plan. 

Since the organization began in March 2018, he said he has donated at least $250,000 to Survivor Strong.

“But I don’t know what I got for that,” he said. “I wanted a business plan. I have not seen one.”

Winters, the attorney, said the organization is working on a business plan.

Thomashow and board members were unable to verify how many people the organization has served. The only number she could state was “50 plus” who are receiving “care packages” from the organization. 

An internal financial document obtained by CIty Pulse for 2020 shows the organization raised about $154,000 and ended the year with a deficit of about $2,600. That document also shows that the organization spent about $124,000 on employee compensation. Additional documents showed that there were nine employees at the organization in 2020, including Thomashow.

Under federal law, a 990 form, a legally mandated tax report on a charity’s fundraising and expenditures, must be available for immediate review when a person stops into the main business office and requests them. City Pulse stopped at the office location listed as the business office for Survivor Strong last week but found no employees or signage for the organization there. Thomashow acknowledged the office is no longer used by the organization.

Survivor Strong didn’t deny the accuracy of the documents but declined to provide any tax documents because they are still being reviewed by accountants. 

“I guess if you wanted to do a piece on Survivor Strong that doesn’t just feel like gossip, we are working on a new business plan and working on restructuring some of our goals as an organization,” said new board member Annie Haas. “And what we’re going to focus on moving forward and we actually already — before all of these shenanigans came to light last week — had that on our plan for starting to go over this coming week in our next board meeting.” 

Haas said there are additional, longer meetings scheduled to review job reviews, job descriptions and the budget to move forward in an “informed and educated and very driven light.”

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