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Crime

Woman sues Baltimore’s National Federation of the Blind, alleging sexual assault, pattern of perpetuating abuse

Exterior of National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute.

A blind woman who says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted as a minor while participating in a program of the National Federation of the Blind, accused the Baltimore-based nonprofit’s leadership of perpetuating a culture of covering up abuse in a lawsuit filed Friday in city Circuit Court.

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Alyssa “Ally” Mendez was 16 in 2018 when she attended an educational program at one of the organization’s affiliates in Louisiana designed to help blind people “develop skills for everyday living and encourage independence,” according to the complaint.

On Mendez’s first day there, Michael Ausbun, a then-23-year-old intern with the program sexually assaulted her, the first of many, Mendez alleges in her lawsuit.

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The Baltimore Sun does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their permission, but in a phone interview Mendez asked The Sun to name her. She said she wanted her name used because she didn’t want to “feel like I was hiding from it.”

Ausbun, who also was president of the nationwide organization’s blind students division, was able to continue his abuse even after the training program ended because of his standing in the organization, according to the complaint.

Despite complaints, supported by evidence, submitted to the National Federation of the Blind’s leadership about Ausbun’s sexual abuse, neither the organization nor any of its affiliates “addressed the sexual abuse and allowed it to continue,” the complaint says. The federation continued to feature Ausbun in high-profile events, according to the lawsuit.

Originally from Florida, Mendez attended federation camps and seminars to learn how to navigate the world as a blind person. They taught her how to travel or to use certain technologies.

Now a sophomore biology major at Drake University in Iowa, Mendez, 20, told The Sun she filed the lawsuit because she hopes to inspire other victims to come forward.

“I don’t want to feel ashamed anymore,” Mendez said.

In one instance, according to the lawsuit, a fellow participant at the training program provided a photo of Ausbun inappropriately touching Mendez to leadership at the Louisiana center.

After another federation employee reported Ausbun in 2019, the organization again did not take any action. Instead, according to the lawsuit, leadership paid for Ausbun to attend a convention in Las Vegas, which Mendez also attended and where Ausbun allegedly stalked her.

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Finally, in 2020, after yet another claim of sexual assault by Ausbun, leadership opted to suspend him from the federation for five years, the lawsuit says.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.

The complaint was filed by Baltimore law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White.

Attorneys encouraged other victims of abuse to come forward.

The delay in any sort of disciplinary action against Ausbun left Mendez feeling a mixture of anger and guilt, she said, with federation leadership often trying to dissuade her from telling authorities.

“I think that I just believed everything that they told me,” Mendez said. “They said it had never happened to anyone else and if we reported it, it would get them in trouble. They said they were going to handle it.”

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Ausbun was indicted in June 2021 on 18 counts related to the molestation of a minor as an educator at the training program for the blind, according to the Lincoln Parish Clerk of Court’s Office in Louisiana. The alleged conduct that led to Ausbun’s indictment is the same abuse referenced in Mendez’s lawsuit, according to her attorneys.

Ausbun’s criminal case is still pending as he waits for either a trial date or to reach a deal with prosecutors, according to the clerk’s office.

“Mr. Ausbun continues to maintain his innocence for any and all charges made against him by the alleged victim,” said Eric Johnson, Ausbun’s defense attorney.

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In an interim report published in June 2021 examining the scope of sexual misconduct within the National Federation for the Blind, a committee charged with investigating abuse claims found the entire organization had been “negatively impacted,” writing that “sexual misconduct within the organization has caused real trauma.”

The investigation found the organization received reports of 55 incidents of sexual abuse committed by 52 different people from December 2020 to June 2021, according to the report.

“NFB and its members have long known that sexual predators worked within its organizations to take advantage of the blind,” Mendez’s attorneys wrote.

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For years, starting in around 2002, the leadership of the National Federation of the Blind disregarded claims of sexual misconduct, despite clear evidence abuse was occurring, the report found.

Several former high-ranking federation members have been accused of, and criminally charged with, sexual assault. Dan Wenzel, a former member of the federation’s board, was suspended for five years from holding elected positions with the organization after an internal investigation found he had sexually assaulted women while carrying out his official duties, according to the organization’s report.

Once Mendez started learning about the other instances of abuse, she said she no longer felt as alone. But the organization’s lack of response throughout the years has left her disenchanted, and she is no longer a part of the federation.


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