This week, new details have emerged about financial mismanagement at the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. A second audit has revealed the former director of the child welfare agency may have violated state ethics rules by getting paid to be a consultant for a vendor DCYF was overseeing.
The audits are part of an ongoing effort to reform the agency responsible for abused or neglected children. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Kristin Gourlay joins news director Elisabeth Harrison to explain the latest. You can listen their conversation or read the transcript, below.
LIS: Hi Kristin. So a new audit has uncovered some questionable financial practices involving a nonprofit service agency called the Center for South East Asians and the former director of DCYF, Janice DeFrances. I’d like you to tell us about the findings in that audit, but first catch us up on what’s happening with this agency.
KRIS: Sure. Some of our listeners may already know that DCYF is in the midst of a huge overhaul. That’s because several reports last year found big problems at the agency – from cost overruns to mismanagement. Governor Gina Raimondo put new leadership in place. Child welfare experts from the Annie E. Casey Foundation have been embedded on staff to help guide the turnaround. And the agency underwent its first financial audit in years. That turned up some irregularities that officials decided to investigate further. So now we have a second audit focused on this organization the Center for South East Asians and its financial arrangement with DCYF.
LIS: The CSEA provides education and translation services to southeast Asians in Rhode Island. So it’s one of many organizations DCYF hires to provide services to the kids and families it’s responsible for, right?
KRIS: Right. DCYF received some grants totaling about $24-thousand dollars for employee health and wellness activities. We don’t know much more from the audit or other documents what specifically that money was intended for. But DCYF asked the Center for South East Asians to set up an account for that money on behalf of DCYF. In other words, CSEA was acting as the fiscal agent for DCYF, holding and disbursing these funds from a checking account it managed. And that’s against state purchasing rules.
LIS: It sounds odd, at the very least, for a southeast Asian social service organization to manage funds intended for DCYF employee wellness. How were these funds disbursed?
KRIS: Auditors had troubling finding documentation for how these funds were used other than emails from the former director of DCYF, Janice DeFrances. We have tried repeatedly to reach out to Ms. DeFrances, by the way, but have not been successful. But according to the audit, DeFrances would send an email requesting a payment, and a check would be cut.
LIS: So was any of the money used to promote DCYF employees’ health and wellness?
KRIS: There’s a list of payments to DeFrances, DCYF’s former director, in an appendix to this audit. And it looks like some went to staff appreciation lunches. But others make no sense: $1650.00 for membership dues to the Belizean Grove club – that’s a private, women only networking club. $712 dollars for two dinner meetings, requested after DeFrances left her job at DCYF back in January. Another thousand dollars requested after she left state employment for a donation and a flight.
LIS: State officials have turned this information over to the state ethics commission and the state police to see if they merit any further investigation. Any word on whether there will be criminal charges?
KRIS: We have to wait for the investigations, if there are any, to move forward and find out all the details. And we haven’t heard an explanation from DeFrances, except a statement she made to the Associated Press denying she received any payments from this account.
LIS: How do these revelations change things going forward at DCYF? What has the reaction been?
KRIS: DCYF is scrutinizing nearly every contract it has with an outside agency. And it has a lot of those – with agencies that run group homes, do case management, provide counseling to families. Tens of millions of dollars worth. They’re going to begin auditing every vendor that’s received a million dollars or more in payments from DCYF. And they’re considering bringing some of the services they were outsourcing back in house. But also, I think these revelations will be yet another blow to employee morale at DCYF, where morale is already low and staff say they feel they’re asked to do more than they can reasonably handle.
LIS: We also hear that DCYF will terminate its relationship with the Center for South East Asians and has asked other state agencies to consider the same. They’ve asked CSEA to return nearly half a million dollars in unspent grant funds.
KRIS: Yes, and a spokesman for the CSEA said in a statement Tuesday that the organization feels maligned by these accusations and wants a chance to clear its name.
LIS: Kristin Gourlay, financial mismanagement isn’t the only problem plaguing DCYF. Update us on some other reforms underway. You went to a hearing at the statehouse Tuesday where DCYF’s de facto leader Jamia McDonald gave lawmakers a progress report on 20 areas they’re addressing. Any highlights?
KRIS: A couple. DCYF has been placing more kids in group homes than national experts recommend. McDonald told lawmakers there’s a process in place now to find families or other placements for the 45 children in group homes who are under the age of 12. She mentioned they’re trying to streamline training for caseworkers, so they can be on the job sooner. And they’re coming up with a broad strategy for recruiting more foster families, who are desperately needed.
For more details on DCYF's progress report to the joint senate commission, see our previous post on The Pulse here.