Leading a recent tour of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), Executive Director Jennifer Mead-Brause seems excited. She shows a reporter a cat room with new cages, the result of a $10,000 individual donation, and mentions another recent donation she’ll use to get more new cages. She talks about a new grant from local organization Best Friends, which will allow for a trainer to come in and work with volunteers and dogs to make them more adoption-friendly. And she notes empty cages with happiness: “These went to rescue,” she says, pointing to two in a small dog room, “and these”—another two or three—“got adopted. It’s great to see.”
But talking to former BARCS volunteers paints a less rosy picture. One of the first and most repeated words that comes up is Mead-Brause’s name. It is frequently surrounded by a litany of other words: “paranoid,” “insecure,” “closed off.” Then there are the words that describe the culture of the place itself: “not open to new ideas,” “stuck in the past,” “politics.” And one more: “fired.”
Mead-Brause says that three volunteers were asked to leave BARCS in 2011, and two in 2010; in a separate interview, volunteer manager Joseph Miletti, hired in fall of 2011, confirms these numbers. But City Paper spoke individually with seven who say they were fired—directly or effectively—sometime between the time a CP article on trouble at BARCS (“Barking Mad,” Feature) ran in June 2011 and December 2011 (one chose to remain anonymous). When this is pointed out, both Mead-Brause and Miletti repeat that three volunteers were fired in 2011. CP did not hear from any who say they were let go in 2010.
Miletti says the discrepancy may be due to the fact that if there are issues, he reaches out to an individual and asks them to come in and speak with him personally. He says sometimes volunteers incorrectly assume they are going to be let go, and so they elect not to come in or return his phone calls.
Mead-Brause declines to comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality and respect for the volunteers’ privacy, but stresses that she had no doubt the dismissed volunteers care about animals. “We need to work together as a well-oiled machine the best that we can so we can continue to move our organization forward,” she says. “So there are times when these few volunteers. . . .” She pauses briefly. “We welcome constructive criticism but there is a way to go about it productively so we can work on things and move forward. When volunteers or anybody is not able to do that, just like in any organization, it might be time to part ways.”
“We have about 400 volunteers, and they really are an absolutely wonderful group of people to work with,” Miletti says. “That being said, I do have a program to run. . . . If something or somebody becomes consistently counterproductive to the advancement of the program and the program suffers, then we’ll talk and it may be found that it’s just best to part ways.”
By former volunteer Amanda Fitzgerald’s estimate, about 15-20 people have been told they are unwelcome at the shelter since she started volunteering in 2007 up until the time she was fired in July 2011, many of whom were part of a group that lobbied for change in January 2011, a move that was the basis for the prior CP article. Their situations vary, but those whom City Paper spoke to all say they were asked to leave not due to their performance, but because of openly expressing disagreement with Mead-Brause, the board, and/or the conditions at BARCS, voicing any number of complaints about the way things are run.
Complaints vary from person to person, but there are common threads. Many discuss apathy of the board of directors, and note that boardmembers spend almost no time at the shelter and do very little fundraising. They say communication is lacking between volunteers, staff, Miletti, and Mead-Brause herself, and that any criticisms are ignored and may result in being asked to leave.
“I really think the problem is the executive director,” says Jana Deoliveira, a former volunteer who was fired in 2011. “She really runs a tight ship. It seems like she would rather have volunteers who speak up and give their opinions fired than have them be there [to speak up].”
Of the former volunteers (and one current volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being asked to leave) CP reached, most discussed the BARCS staff using Facebook to weed out negative ideas. BARCS has an internal Facebook page for volunteers and staff members to communicate with each other; former volunteers contend that any posts deemed negative are deleted. Several mention a locked file cabinet used to store printouts of BARCS-related comments from the volunteer page as well as, they contend, volunteers’ personal Facebook pages. Former volunteer Tim Quinn says the two comments in his file were shown to him and used as justification in firing him (in addition to being told that he couldn’t work there because his wife, Kathy Quinn, had been fired a week prior). The comments, placed on the volunteer page, had to do with what he saw as a kennel cough epidemic that was not being addressed, and read, in part:
Perhaps we should convene a group of volunteers, veterinary staff and last but not least—shelter management—to pin down the root cause, and come up with an effective SOLUTION to this completely out of control pandemic. . . .There is something seriously wrong in the process BARCS is using to house and handle dogs that this epidemic should have taken hold in the first place. Let’s FIX it.Miletti denies that anyone at BARCS looks at personal Facebook pages, but confirms that he does keep files on the volunteers: “Oh yeah, just like any business or any program we keep a file cabinet filled with training, any documents that they sign, and just like with any staff member, if any issue comes up that’s documented as well.”
Deoliveira says she had a similar experience to Tim Quinn’s. She says in the fall of 2011, she took a friend interested in fostering a pit bull to BARCS for a visit. He picked a few he liked, and when Deoliveira left for an appointment, he was at the front desk filling out foster forms. Later, he texted her saying he had not been allowed to take any dogs home, and neither he nor Deoliveira were given a clear reason, she says. So she posted on the internal Facebook page asking for clarification of foster policy. She says her post was deleted, so she posted it again. Deleted. She posted a third time, and got kicked off the page. She says she received an e-mail from the volunteer coordinator asking her to come in for a one-on-one meeting to discuss what she had posted; she says she suspected, based on what had happened to others, that she would be asked to leave, and elected not to go in. She says a staff member called her to confirm her suspicions. Another former volunteer, Dana Cubbage, says she was kicked off the Facebook page for chiming in on the conversation; she received an e-mail from Miletti saying she couldn’t volunteer until she had a one-on-one meeting with him. She has since moved to Charleston, S.C.
“I guess they didn’t really want any volunteers around that were going to question policies,” Cubbage says. “I think they were embarrassed they were being called out on it. They are overcrowded and they turned a foster [sponsor] away.”
“Peoples’ personal [Facebook] pages are not our concern,” Mead-Brause says, “but the [BARCS] Facebook page is designed for communication as far as what are the shelter’s needs. . . . So there are some folks that continue to not listen to that policy [of speaking privately with the volunteer manager] and were causing a lot of issues and it was offending the other volunteers, it was offending staff, and so after a while, it got to a point where, OK, he deleted some messages because it just was not respectful.”
Fired volunteers say it doesn’t make sense for BARCS to turn away volunteers, given that the shelter is short-staffed and underfunded. It all comes back to Mead-Brause, they say, and her personal problems with criticism.
“When you start dismissing volunteers, the animals suffer,” Amanda Fitzgerald says. “If Jen Mead says she cares about animals, when volunteers come to you with concerns you should listen to them instead of blacklisting them and basically shunning them and then dismissing them.”
Fitzgerald says she was fired after posting comments on the CP web site on the previous article on BARCS. Fitzgerald left numerous comments with her full name on them. Carole Poppleton, who spoke to City Paper about her volunteer experience for the previous article, says she was fired after signing a petition to get Mead-Brause and members of the board of directors replaced.
“Basically I was told that I could no longer volunteer there because I was opposed to her managerial practices,” Poppleton says. “She lectured me for about 45 minutes about how me being opposed to certain practices at BARCS and by signing things that were public, it was going against authority and was basically undermining all the things that BARCS was trying to do. I tried to counter several times with the fact that, as a grownup and professional, I can come in and walk dogs that desperately need to be walked and do a volunteer’s job without bringing politics into the volunteer space. . . . She said no, it was impossible for me to continue volunteering there since I did not agree with the way the place was run.”
Kathy Quinn says she was fired for being “a negative impact on other volunteers” and for calling out Miletti for what she says was a lie about a dog that was euthanized, among other reasons. Another says she was let go because she refused to sign a waiver that said she supported Mead-Brause; she says she told Miletti that she would sign anything that said she supported BARCS, its staff, and its mission, but not Mead-Brause, and was told not to come back.
Miletti confirms that he asked volunteers who signed the petition to redact their signatures and sign a waiver, saying they did not think the accusations in the petition were true. “That petition was around before I started,” he says, “but I have read it, and if somebody signs that petition I view that as being counterproductive to BARCS. There was a waiver, just saying do you actually agree with this petition, and they are given the opportunity to stay. . . . If they continue to say that they agree with that false and untrue petition even after we’ve discussed why it’s untrue then we have to part ways.”
Mead-Brause says things are looking up at the shelter, especially since the last CP article ran. “It’s a much more positive environment, not that it. . . .” She pauses. “There were a few people that it wasn’t positive, but overall we were positive before, and now it feels even better because we’re working together again and that’s what needs to happen. We’ve made a lot of progress over the years and continue to make progress and we’re moving forward.”