Kansas foster care provider criticizes coverage while Nebraska lawmaker asks for fraud inquiry

Senator: ‘Reacting so viscerally to people wanting to make sure that high-quality child welfare exists in Kansas and Nebraska is very concerning’

By: - September 1, 2022 9:28 am

Saint Francis Ministries, a Salina, Kansas-based foster care provider, accused its former leaders of misspending millions of dollars and is suing to recover the money. But in response to reporting by Kansas Reflector, the organization says “there are no unaccounted dollars.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas’ largest foster care contractor responded to Kansas Reflector reporting on the organization’s finances and litigation by pointing to a turnaround under current leadership and a willingness to cooperate with investigators.

Saint Francis Ministries said statements published in an Aug. 12 story are “inaccurate” and “false” but wouldn’t identify specific statements in question. The nonprofit also wouldn’t answer questions for this story.

Saint Francis provided an alternate description of its departure from Nebraska, where multiple investigations sounded alarms about the organization’s ability to comply with state law while providing foster care services for the Omaha area.

On Thursday, based in part on reporting by Kansas Reflector, a Nebraska state senator asked her attorney general to conduct an investigation into the possibility that Saint Francis defrauded the state.

The Aug. 12 story examined a lawsuit filed by Saint Francis to recover millions of dollars from its former CEO, chief counsel and IT director, who are accused of misusing company credit cards and excessive billing.

Current leadership at Saint Francis Ministries says the organization’s finances are now stable as a result of “hard work, sacrifice, and dedication of the entire Saint Francis Ministries team.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Alison Kossover, chief administration officer for Saint Francis, said in a 300-word response that the story leads readers to “an inaccurate understanding of the situation.”

“Over the past twenty-two months, the Saint Francis Ministries team has cooperated with investigators, auditors, and state partners to ensure accurate accounting and complete transparency,” Kossover said. “In summary, there are no unaccounted dollars as we continue to openly assist and support government organizations with their inquiries.”

In the lawsuit, filed in January in Saline County District Court, Saint Francis accuses its former leaders of misleading board members to hide the misspending of millions of dollars. Kansas Reflector reported that Teresa Woody, litigation director for Kansas Appleseed, said it was appalling that millions of dollars meant to provide foster care were not accounted for.

Kansas Appleseed settled a lawsuit last year to require improvements in the foster care system. Woody clarified her remarks for this story.

“Millions of dollars were transferred — Saint Francis now alleges fraudulently — for IT services it did not receive instead of going toward Saint Francis’s obligation to protect children in foster care, money that St. Francis is now trying to recoup through a lawsuit,” Woody said. “The Kansas Legislature must demand financial transparency from Saint Francis and hold it accountable for any harm suffered by children in Kansas foster care due to financial or other improprieties. This situation continues to demonstrate the need for enhanced and continued oversight and reform of Kansas’ foster care system.”

Saint Francis enlisted the services of Parris Communications, based in Kansas City, Missouri, to distribute Kossover’s response to news outlets that published the Kansas Reflector story.

Kansas Reflector sent a list of seven questions seeking clarification about Kossover’s response.

“Saint Francis Ministries stands by their previous statement and has no further comment at this time,” said Laurie Roberts, president of Parris Communications.

Leaving Nebraska

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha (Courtesy of Nebraska Unicameral Information Office)

Nebraska Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh sent a letter Thursday to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson in response to an Aug. 11 story by Kansas Reflector about federal authorizes moving to seize $10 million from the former Saint Francis IT director.

The letter asks the attorney general to launch an investigation into Nebraska’s dealings with Saint Francis and its former leaders and to compel the parties to preserve any evidence relating to the contract with Nebraska.

The request is a reflection of ongoing concerns about the contract Nebraska awarded Saint Francis in 2019. The former CEO knowingly underbid the contract, and the state had to infuse an additional $110 million into the deal in January 2021. But the organization continued to struggle with its obligations to care for foster children in Nebraska.

The organization announced in December it would leave Nebraska after investigations by the state’s inspector general and an oversight committee both concluded the state should end its relationship with Saint Francis.

Kossover’s response to Reflector’s reporting said state regulators and Saint Francis “agreed to mutually terminate the contract.”

“Nebraska ended privatization in the state, and did not replace Saint Francis with another contractor,” Kossover said.

In an interview for this story, Cavanaugh said the poor performance by Saint Francis played an “enormous part” in the decision to terminate the contract. The investigations, a Kanas auditor’s report and depositions from a lawsuit in Nebraska all raised concerns, Cavanaugh said.

“There was this picture of systematic failure on the part of Saint Francis Ministries to do what was statutorily required in child welfare in Nebraska,” Cavanaugh said.

Before Saint Francis announced the decision to terminate the contract, Cavanaugh had already filed legislation that would have forced the state to sever ties with the organization.

Cavanaugh said the attempt to characterize the departure as a “mutual” agreement was an attempt to avoid responsibility “for this atrocious contract.”

“Is ‘atrocious’ too mild of a word?” Cavanaugh said.

Transforming lives

In an interview for this story, Cavanaugh questioned the organization’s decision to complain about Kansas Reflector’s reporting.

Any organization that deals in child welfare should welcome public scrutiny, Cavanaugh said.

“Things happen within the child welfare system,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s never going to be perfect, but we need to know about them. We need to document them, and we need to be able to fix them. So reacting so viscerally to people wanting to make sure that high-quality child welfare exists in Kansas and Nebraska is very concerning and a big red flag. Especially after you have lost millions of dollars.”

Kansas Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat who serves on the foster care oversight committee, said he has had concerns with every foster care provider in Kansas, and “Saint Francis stands out” because of the financial mismanagement “by a few bad players.”

There are still “too many headlines,” Ousley said, about tragedies involving foster children, kids sleeping in offices and delays in finding permanent placements.

“The facts are the facts,” Ousley said. “I’d like to think that Saint Francis as an organization, once they discovered it, made changes. It is what it is, and I don’t see any reason to be sensitive.”

Kossover’s response said Saint Francis is financially sound and proud of its work.

“This outcome is due to hard work, sacrifice and dedication of the entire Saint Francis Ministries team,” Kossover said. “What has transpired in the past will not define our legacy. Saint Francis Ministries has faithfully transformed lives for over 75 years and remains committed to our mission of providing healing and hope to children and families.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor of the Kansas Reflector. He was the Kansas Press Association’s 2021 journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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