Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Audit cites foster care expenses

Big Hamilton County provider tops list

By Debra Jasper
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS — The state auditor has determined that one of the largest foster care agencies in Ohio and the nation spent $5.4 million over three years that was undocumented, unallowable or unreasonable.

The auditor's report will be released today. A copy was obtained Tuesday by The Cincinnati Enquirer.

With 1,100 children in its care — 580 of them in Ohio — SAFY is one of the country's largest foster care agencies. SAFY has its national offices in Delphos, Ohio, northwest of Lima.
There are separate nonprofit SAFY corporations in each of the eight states where SAFY operates.
State agencies pay management fees and other fees to SAFY of America.
The auditor's report questions the spending of Specialized Alternatives for Families and Youth (SAFY) between from 1997 to 1999. The agency gets significant funding from the Cincinnati area, collecting more than $700,000 so far this year from Hamilton County alone for caring for 31 foster children.

The findings against SAFY of Ohio are the largest since Auditor Jim Petro started examining the foster care system four years ago. Expenses questioned by auditors at SAFY of Ohio ranged from $3.1 million in management fees to $2,300 for personal items from floral shops, Circuit City and the Tri-County Mall.

Ben Brooks, president of the SAFY board of directors, released a statement late Tuesday saying the questioned costs “present a grossly unfair and misleading impression” of SAFY operations.

“Children have always come first with SAFY of Ohio,” he said. He added that the SAFY board has already adopted or will adopt many recommendations in the audit.

To date, Mr. Petro's office has issued findings against 14 other foster care agencies for spending a combined $4 million in tax money meant for foster children on everything from a Mercedes-Benz roadster to jet fuel, tanning bed visits, plastic surgery and quarter horses. All told, the auditor has found nearly $10 million in questionable spending since 1998.

“I used to feel a whole lot better about the job the state was doing in making sure our vulnerable children are taken care of,” said State Rep. Jeff Jacobson, R-Vandalia, one of 13 legislators who initially requested the audits. “What's happening is despicable. We have to make sure the tax money we're spending on foster children is actually getting to them.”

Mr. Petro declined to comment on the SAFY audit until its release today. But he has said the foster care audits are the most intensive review of the state's child welfare system in 20 years.

In 2001, more than 35,900 children were placed in the custody of county children's services agencies — a 27 percent increase since 1991. Many counties use tax money to pay private agencies to place and oversee the children. About half of Ohio's 11,000 foster homes operate through private agencies.

State auditors say there are serious flaws throughout the system, including that many boards expected to watch over private agencies are rife with conflicts of interest. With SAFY, for example, the audit found one board member's mother and two siblings were agency foster parents, and another board member's wife and son were employees.

It also found that former top officials at the agency bought land and sold it at a profit to SAFY Holding Co., a related agency. The audit said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, which oversees federal funding for foster children, should step up oversight of such agencies and their boards.

The audit also criticized SAFY for giving the state incomplete or inaccurate information, redacting data or failing to provide information at all. The report said even after issuing subpoenas, the agency still refused to provide complete documents for SAFY of America, a related company.

Mr. Brooks disputes that the agency failed to cooperate with auditors. He said SAFY of America gave records to the state even though the audit was supposed to focus on private foster care companies and SAFY of America is a management company.

“We are extremely disappointed that the auditor chose to portray SAFY in such a light after we went the extra mile,” Mr. Brooks said.

Mr. Brooks said the agency has changed significantly since the audit period in the late 1990s. It has all new board members and a new CEO, Druann Whitaker.

County officials who pay SAFY of Ohio agree the agency has improved since Ms. Whitaker took over.

Nonetheless, Laurie Petrie, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Jobs and Family Services, said Magellan Behavior Health — which the county uses to contract with SAFY — will take a closer look at the audit to determine if more changes are needed.

Other Cincinnati area agencies say they don't do as much business with SAFY as they once did.

In 1998, Butler County paid SAFY of Ohio $739,000 to care for foster children. Bob Walker, spokesman for the Butler County Children Services Board, said that amount has been reduced significantly because SAFY now cares for only three Butler County children.



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