Former Planned Parenthood Great Plains CEO accused of abusive behavior, systemic racism

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The former head of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, who left for New York in 2017 to run the organization’s largest affiliate, is being accused by her current and former staff of abusive behavior, systemic racism and financial mismanagement.

More than 300 people have signed an “Open Letter” released Thursday calling for Laura McQuade’s removal as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. The letter also calls for an independent investigation into the allegations as well as salary cuts for top officials earning more than $100,000.

McQuade was president and CEO of Planned Parenthood’s affiliate based in Overland Park, Kansas, from July 2014 through August 2017.

“In her two-and-a-half year tenure, McQuade has created a culture of fear and intimidation; we have witnessed her cull dissenters and surround herself with enablers,” says the letter released Thursday by the New York workers. “Through abusive behavior and financial malfeasance, we have watched her fundamentally threaten the fiscal and operational viability of Planned Parenthood’s largest affiliate and its 900 employees.”

Those signing the letter say they remain “deeply committed to maintaining access to abortion and sexual and reproductive health care” and add that “while acutely aware of the political landscape, we have experienced firsthand how constant public scrutiny perpetuates a culture of silence within reproductive health organizations.”

The letter says though staff members worked hard to resolve the issues internally, their efforts “were met with silence, indifference, and an increasing disregard for staff wellbeing.”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Planned Parenthood Great Plains and McQuade did not respond Friday to requests for comment on the allegations.

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s board of directors issued a statement Friday night, saying it fully supported McQuade and was going through a transformation process “to improve patient access, quality and equity” that “has been made all the more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“This process has required us to move through conflict and to hold all of us accountable to change,” the board said. Among the goals it is committed to achieving, it said, is “divesting from and dismantling white dominant organizational norms and practices and committing to equity standards in all organizational practices” as well as “building accountable relationships with communities of color.”

In a June 15 tweet, McQuade said that “we must eviscerate systemic racism and injustice in order to achieve true freedom.” And on June 1, she tweeted: “It’s time to address white supremacy in our own institutions. PP pledges to reckon with our own racist history, acknowledging and correcting implicit bias in our organization, and creating space for Black organizations and leaders.”

On Friday, former staff at Planned Parenthood Great Plains released a letter supporting their New York colleagues in calling for McQuade’s removal.

“The horrific behavior that PPGNY staff described in their open letter — yelling, berating, slamming fists, verbally abusing staff, bullying employees, and mass layoffs — is consistent with our own painful experiences under McQuade’s leadership at PPGP (formerly known as Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri) between 2014 and 2017,” said the statement, signed by about a dozen people.

The statement noted that some staff had warned the national Planned Parenthood office about McQuade in a May 2019 letter, but the warning was ignored.

“A reckoning within the Planned Parenthood organization — across affiliates and the national office at PPFA — is long past due,” Friday’s statement said. “It’s not enough to just say ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Defund the Police’ if our own systems continue to oppress Black and non-Black people of color.”

Elise Higgins, a former lobbyist in Kansas for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, told The Star that concerns the New York affiliate is raising about McQuade’s behavior are identical to those the staff experienced here.

“There was a massive amount of staff turnover during Laura’s tenure,” Higgins said. “Laura frequently yelled at staff both in private and in meetings with their peers and belittled and ridiculed.

“The way that displeasure was voiced created a culture of fear.”

Karina Bielecki, who worked at Planned Parenthood Great Plains from 2016 to 2018 as an administrative assistant for several departments, said employees have been afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of hurting the movement or jeopardizing a patient’s ability to access services.

“I do think management at PPGP and probably across other reproductive rights organizations relies on that dynamic to keep people too scared to say anything,” she said.

“But if you think that reproductive rights, reproductive freedoms are worthy goals to be pursuing, achieving that is very intertwined with us doing a lot of the anti-racism work that people are coming alive to now. And it’s also closely tied in with workers’ rights. Organizations can’t claim to be progressive and moving forward if they’re not willing to listen to very basic criticisms from employees.”

In 2016, during McQuade’s time in the Kansas City area, a Black employee with bipolar disorder filed a lawsuit against Planned Parenthood Great Plains, alleging racial and disability discrimination. The employee said the office was severely understaffed when she was hired in 2015 and that she asked for help in order to do her job properly. She said she was fired after telling her superiors about her disability.

“Plaintiff was denied training and support in her position, while white employees and managers were helped and supported in their jobs,” the lawsuit alleged. “Plaintiff witnessed numerous instances of discriminatory and disparate treatment toward other African American employees, including in hiring, discipline, and termination.”

The lawsuit was settled in March 2017 and dismissed.

When McQuade took over Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri — now known as Planned Parenthood Great Plains — the organization encompassed only Kansas and Missouri. But it expanded during her tenure into Arkansas and Oklahoma, becoming a $16 million, multi-state organization by the time she departed.

McQuade led the local Planned Parenthood affiliate during a tumultuous period that included repeated battles with lawmakers over the passage of tougher abortion restrictions and the cutting of Medicaid funding to the organization.

Planned Parenthood of Greater New York’s 2018 tax filing — the most recent one available — shows the organization had a $57.4 million budget. McQuade’s total compensation that year was $428,321.

The letter from New York employees says the organization has lost the $18 million surplus it had when McQuade took over and now has a projected deficit of $6.2 million for the six months of 2020, calculated before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter also says that Planned Parenthood “was founded by a racist, white woman,” referring to Margaret Sanger, who formed the organization in 1916.

“That is a part of history that cannot be changed,” it says. “While efforts have been made to undo some of the harm from institutional racism, many of these issues have worsened under McQuade’s tenure.”


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