Melanie Sachs is pictured in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Patty Wight | Maine Public

The former executive director of the sexual assault response organization serving Cumberland and York counties left her role last year under fire from her own staff members who reported that she fostered a “hostile” and “abusive” work environment.

Melanie Sachs, who led Portland-based Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine for more than two years and is a former Freeport town councilor, is now running for the Maine House as a Democrat to fill the seat serving Freeport and part of Pownal. It will be vacated by House Speaker Sara Gideon, a term-limited Democrat who is running for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Susan Collins.

Shortly before Sachs submitted her resignation in February 2019, three employees asked the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault to intervene based on a number of concerns about Sachs’ treatment of staff, alleged invasion of a client’s confidentiality and unanswered questions about uneven pay.

The employees turned to the statewide coalition — which does not technically oversee the state’s sexual assault response centers but does coordinate funding for them — because they said their own nonprofit’s board had not acted on their concerns.

“We refuse to watch another coworker weep in their car after a meeting with Melanie or hold our breath every time she goes on a hospital accompaniment. The harm that Melanie has caused abounds and has been piling up for years,” the three staff members, all of whom later left the organization, wrote in their complaint.

Seven former employees and one former intern at Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine spoke to the Bangor Daily News about their experiences working for Sachs, describing how she yelled at them, slammed doors, got angry when staff asked questions about their jobs and cut benefits for staff mental health. In response, some staff members worked out plans to never end up alone with her and recorded their interactions with her, several said.

Nearly the entire staff, which fluctuated between 12 and 19 people over the last three years, left under Sachs’ tenure. She resigned last year after the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault asked that the local agency’s board investigate her conduct, according to former staff, emails they provided and the coalition.

Since then, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine has reinstated a paid hour each week for staff to take self-care breaks, brought on clinical supervision for staff to receive mental health support, allowed staff to work four days per week during the pandemic and addressed concerns about pay, according to former staff and Gina Capra, the current executive director, who had not known what happened under Sachs.

In a written statement, Sachs said it is “her practice as a professional” not to comment on personnel matters and that she is “truly disappointed in a late, politically motivated effort to undermine the campaign.” She did not respond to a series of specific questions.

“That said, I was indeed hired to lead a turn-around at SARSSM, a job I was recruited to do because of my proven track record as a nonprofit executive,” Sachs said. “The agency was in the midst of a budget and management crisis that necessitated rapid and significant change within the organization that, by its very nature, impacted personnel.”

Sachs’ opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Republican Jay Finegan of Freeport.

In mid-September, Anissa Tanksley, who worked at the agency from 2017 to 2019 as a child forensic interviewer, contacted the BDN with concerns that her former boss was running for the State House without a public accounting of the circumstances surrounding her departure from the organization that serves victims of sexual violence in Maine’s two most populous counties.

Coming forward had nothing to do with politicking, she said. Like Sachs, she is a registered Democrat. She also won’t be voting in the local election as she no longer lives in Maine. Rather, she said she felt “a sense of social obligation.”

The “final straw” that led Tanksley and two other colleagues to file the complaint about Sachs in January 2019 stemmed from her time co-facilitating an in-person support group for survivors of sexual assault that quickly went “downhill,” she said.

When one member of the support group needed more individual attention in late 2018, Sachs declined the facilitators’ request to add a third advocate to help. Instead, Sachs said the support group member would have to leave, as the person had “too many needs,” according to the complaint.

When Tanksley and her co-facilitator “vehemently disagreed,” their boss said that, if they didn’t tell the support group participant to leave, Sachs would do it herself, according to the complaint. Ultimately they agreed they would rather end the group entirely.

Sachs’ overall response “blamed that survivor for her experience of a situation that SARSSM had placed her in,” the staff members wrote.

The anecdote became one of several examples of Sachs’ treatment of sexual assault victims and staff included in the 16-page report sent to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The BDN is not naming the two others who signed the complaint because they declined to be interviewed.

Former employees also alleged that Sachs oversaw a violation of client confidentiality by ordering staff to go to a victim’s home where they disclosed that the person was a client.

Anissa Tanksley (left) and Molly Donlan, former advocates with Portland-based Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, are pictured during a TV segment in 2017. Credit: CBS 13

A family advocate, Molly Donlan, had accompanied the victim to the hospital on Jan. 29, 2018, she said. The next day, the organization received a note from the client, without a return address, that mentioned suicide. While advocates can call first responders when people threaten to harm themselves or others, advocates do not respond themselves, Donlan and others said.

But after apparently figuring out where the client lived, Sachs directed staff to go to the person’s home to “somehow ensure the survivor’s safety,” according to the complaint, even though doing so violated “crisis protocol and the agency’s mission and values.”

Advocate Whitney Adell and her supervisor, Rosie DiBella, went to the client’s home and spoke to someone there, something that Adell felt “very uncomfortable with,” she said.

“That should never have happened,” Adell said. “We don’t barge into people’s homes, ever.”

One reason is because funding is contingent on centers following certain rules. For instance, the federal Victims of Crime Act Victim Assistance Program prohibits its grant recipients from disclosing information about clients “without the informed, written, reasonably time-limited consent of the person.”

DiBella, who said she had a good working relationship with Sachs, disputed this version of events in an email but declined to elaborate.

Sachs was also “furious” at Donlan for not getting the victim’s address when she had been at the hospital, Donlan said, despite the fact that advocates never ask people where they live. Rather they are taught to only receive information that survivors are willing to share, to help restore an element of power to survivors’ lives that was taken away in their assault.

Sachs said she “always” asks where clients live and “always” looks at their medical charts, according to the complaint. (Donlan and Adell also told the BDN they heard Sachs say this.)

Fearing Sachs was violating client confidentiality, Adell said she ultimately reported Sachs’ comments about reading medical charts to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault prior to the larger staff complaint.

Situations like this one often prompted staff to ask for written policies to help guide them in complicated situations, five former employees said. But they alleged Sachs dismissed their questions. She responded with, “‘I’m saying it out loud, so that’s the policy,’” said Adell, who left the organization last month.

One issue that staff requested clarification on was how much they should be paid for their time on call accompanying victims to the hospital or police station outside their regular work hours. They received different pay, minimum wage, for this field work, while they typically received more than $15 per hour for their day jobs.

The issue came to a head when staff “flexed” their hours — or, worked less the rest of the week to make up for their on-call hours. Doing so earned them their regular wage for on-call duties, Tanksley said. But if they got called out later in the week and didn’t have any more time to flex, their pay was based on minimum wage. It made them wonder if they were being paid correctly.

“Not only do the questions remain unanswered but Melanie’s response to the request for clarification was to say ‘I am sorry you feel taken advantage of,’” according to the January complaint.

The personnel policy in place at the time discusses staff hours and overtime, but not specifics about on-call pay, according to a copy provided to the BDN.

Sachs’ responses to staff inquiries created an atmosphere where employees dreaded asking basic questions. In interviews and their complaint, they described how they felt as if they were “walking on eggshells” when working with Sachs.

For instance, Sachs inexplicably got angry at Donlan for having another advocate — Adell — relieve her at the end of her shift with the client at the hospital, the same one who later wrote the note mentioning suicide, Donlan said.

On Feb. 21, 2018, in a phone call, Sachs screamed at Donlan, “straight up, at the top of her lungs,” Donlan said, berating her for not staying with the client until the end of her hospital stay and insinuating that Donlan didn’t take her job seriously, before hanging up on her. Sachs was upset even though it was the organization’s policy for staff to relieve one another, the client had been fine with another advocate and the back-up on-call advocate had approved the move, Donlan said.

Adell confirmed the account, saying she saw Sachs slam an office door behind her to get on the phone with Donlan and then overheard Sachs yelling.

At a later staff meeting, Sachs said some staff were “not going to go the extra mile to serve our clients, and some of us don’t actually care about sexual assault survivors,” Donlan recalled. Meanwhile Sachs was “staring daggers at me.”

Two other advocates independently recalled the meeting, including that Sachs eventually raised her voice at Donlan. “It was this hellish thing,” one advocate, Chloe Dietrich, said. “It was like watching a parent yell at a kid. It was so personal. It was so unprofessional.”

After that, staff felt compelled to record their interactions with Sachs and figured out ways to not be alone with her, said Val Johnstone, a prevention educator with the organization from 2017 to January 2020. They recognized the irony in developing these “safety plans” with one another, something advocates typically do with sexual assault victims to ensure their safety from an assailant.

By March 2018, Donlan had worked in sexual assault advocacy for nine years and had developed ways of maintaining boundaries between work and her personal life, so she wouldn’t burn out. But she no longer felt safe at work, she said, and she quit.

“I find Melanie’s handling of this entire situation to be unprofessional, unfounded, and in violation of multiple SARSSM policies, which is one of the many reasons why I can no longer work for this agency,” she wrote in a letter sent March 17, 2018, to both Sachs and Carolyn Slocombe, then the chairperson of the organization’s board of directors, outlining a number of concerns.

Slocombe, however, did not follow up with Donlan to address her complaints, she said.

Slocombe did not respond to two emailed requests for comment over a period of about three days.

A total of 12 people — eight on the record and four off the record — spoke to the BDN about their troubling professional experiences with Sachs. But one additional former employee, DiBella, said she had “an excellent experience” working with Sachs. DiBella, whom Sachs recommended the BDN speak to, said her boss was “very caring and compassionate towards every survivor who walked through our door,” and described her as a “wonderful supervisor and leader.”

But the organization’s former intern, Eva Light, said the director taught her “a lot about what not to do as a leader.”

Interning at the agency from August 2017 to May 2018, as she sought her master’s in social work, Light said she witnessed Sachs ”talking down to people, being condescending, struggling to see other people’s points of view, which is something important in a leader, and choosing to blame other people for the shortcomings of the agency.”

According to six former staff interviewed by the BDN, Sachs lost her temper during staff meetings more than once, leading advocates to abhor the gatherings.

“It was always passive aggressive at the start, talking about clarifying the policy without naming names,” Dietrich said. “But as soon as there was any pushback, it was just a flip of the switch. … It was just like, we were holding our breath.”

Dietrich primarily worked with incarcerated survivors and spent many of her days inside jails and the nearby youth prison.

Correctional facilities are “designed to crush the spirit,” she said, but “typically the days I knew I’d be in the prisons were more pleasant than the days that I would be in the office.”

Bridget Mancini, who oversaw the organization’s helpline from the spring of 2017 to late 2018, had her own office and allowed staff to sit on her couch to “regroup” when they felt stressed, she said. She often kept the door closed, so she could cry at her desk.

When she learned Sachs was running for office, she realized the public needed more information. At the time, she thought, “The audacity. This woman is relying on our silence, and I’m not OK with that,” she said.

Sachs, however, said others in the community know and support her.

“I have been part of the communities of Freeport and Pownal for 15 years as a leader on the Town Council, as a coach, a volunteer, and as a nonprofit service provider, and the residents know me well,” she wrote in an email. “They know my character, my work ethic, and my results.”

Her former staff said they weren’t sure how to remedy the situation at work, and the fact that people kept quitting made it difficult to join together on a plan of action. It was also demoralizing, Mancini said, to see “a dream team” of advocates leave because they were miserable.

“Melanie was [human resources]. If you didn’t want to talk to Melanie, you could talk to the board,” said Dietrich. But staff didn’t believe it would make a difference because of Sachs’ friendship with board members. “It felt like we were very trapped,” said Dietrich, who quit after only five months, in April 2018.

That was in part why Tanksley and two others decided to report Sachs to the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Tanksley said. Before submitting their letter, Tanksley said she spoke directly with Sachs twice, telling her how upset she felt over her handling of the support group, and that she and others believed Sachs didn’t create a safe environment for people to do their jobs and provide feedback.

Sachs responded by saying she cared about how Tanksley felt but remembered some of their previous interactions differently, according to a recording of the second conversation that Tanksley took at the time and provided to the BDN. Sachs was surprised that Tanksley spoke in such “weaponizing” terms and said “reasonable people can disagree.”

Their conversation ended without meaningfully resolving their differences. Ultimately Sachs began to cry, left the office and loudly shut the door behind her, according to Tanksley.

The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault received the staff complaint on Jan. 29, 2019.

After consulting with its board, legal counsel and directors of Maine’s sexual assault support centers, the coalition shared the complaint with the executive committee of the board for Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine and asked that it investigate the claims, said Elizabeth Ward Saxl, executive director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

One of the issues raised in the complaint was “squarely in our purview,” Ward Saxl said, and had even been brought to the coalition’s attention before the complaint. The Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault “addressed that issue directly with [Sachs],” said Ward Saxl, who added that the matter involved “an allegation of a violation of a grant regulation.”

The board’s executive committee members met Feb. 7, 2019, and made a plan that Sachs would work from home during the course of an investigation, according to notes on the meeting shared with staff. The following day, when they spoke with Sachs, she tendered her resignation effective immediately.

Staff received a letter three days later, Feb. 11, 2019, from Slocombe, the president of the board of directors, announcing Sachs’ resignation.

While there was no formal investigation, the board hired an outside consultant to complete an organizational audit, advocate Bridget Sakowski said.

Sakowski overlapped with Sachs for just a month but said the fallout continued after Sachs left. The nonprofit’s board didn’t seem to address issues that staff had raised, such as around their on-call pay, she said. As others resigned, it left more work and more on-call rotations for the staff who remained. For a number of months, there was no interim director, which made it harder to get budget approval for more staff.

Sakowski resigned in July 2019, just six months after she started.

Eventually, under interim leadership, changes were made. By the time Gina Capra, the current executive director, began work in early December 2019, staff were getting paid their regular wage for on-call work, Capra said. Staff got back their hour of paid self-care time each week. They also now have the option of consulting a clinician to debrief after difficult shifts. And when the cost of health benefits increased, the organization — not employees — bore the brunt of the cost, Capra said.

Since then, “I do think we have seen stabilization. I’ve told staff since the beginning of when I came in, ‘Just because I’m the new ED, that doesn’t mean the transition is done,’” Capra said. Despite the upheavals created by COVID-19, “I feel like there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy around continuing to strengthen and expand the programs that we have.”

The current board of directors released a statement distancing itself from the accounts of former staff. While they take any complaints “extremely seriously,” they said they are “disappointed to learn that former employees have shared confidential matters with the press, without our knowledge, for suspected political purposes.”

They added that they are “deeply concerned” about the potential ramifications on their funding and “on the trust and reputation that we have worked tirelessly to build.”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.