Sunday, April 15, 2007

Human Resources at ChildNet did a poor job of screening out criminals

ChildNet has a $65 million contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide Broward County's child welfare services. It is one of 20 privately run child welfare agencies across Florida.

In September 2006, $8,000 in Wal-Mart gift cards intended for use by foster kids were stolen from a locked ChildNet office. A nearly identical theft occurred in February 2007.

When ChildNet hired two private investigators to look into recent thefts at their agency, two of their 430 employees were implicated. Both suspects, Brady Grant and Steven Williams,have felony records.

Williams' convictions include burglary and battery, while Grant has served prison time for manslaughter and a cocaine addiction.

These are the men that ChildNet hires to be in charge of facilities management and security?

Grant is also suspected of stealing a Dell laptop computer, containing Social Security numbers, credit information and fingerprints on 12,000 Broward applicants to ChildNet's programs, most of them applying to be foster or adoptive parents.

No one has been charged in any of the thefts, and the laptop remains missing.

Why were Grant and Williams hired as ChildNet facilities managers despite their felony records?

During the course of this investigation, more employees have been fired upon closer examination of their backgrounds.

Just this week, a ChildNet maintenance worker was fired, after the latest background check showed he has a criminal record.

Why hasn't Florida DCF severed their contract with this agency?

The state Department of Children & Families had issued a letter terminating their contract with ChildNet - but the contract was instated after ChildNet President and CEO Peter Balitsaris was fired and Chairwoman Virginia Miller stepped down.

It is not enough to fire Balitsaris. The business dealings of ChildNet inspire no confidence in their ability to protect the interests of children or foster/adoptive parents.

According to the two investigators:

1.) ChildNet has no inventory system for ''high-value items'' like computers and furniture. Therefore, no one has inventoried ChildNet's computers and it is likely that other computer thefts have gone unreported.

2.) Childnet computers are vulnerable to security breaches. Critical data isn't regularly backed up and a number of outside vendors have access to ChildNet computer systems containing sensitive information.

3.) There is evidence of illegal kickbacks and fraudulent billing: Peter Greenhough, ChildNet's chief financial officer, has been accused of having his employees falsify invoices so that the state would reimburse the agency for work that it normally wouldn't pay for.

4.) Broward foster children were transported in potentially unsafe vehicles. The auto repair shop utilized by ChildNet paid kickbacks to the agency in order to avoid making needed repairs.

If, as aDCF Secretary Bob Butterworth has stated, the number one concern is that the children are "safe," this priority is not demonstrated by DCF's decision to continue doing business with ChildNet.

The 1,043 foster children in Broward County deserve better than this.

So do foster care/adoption applicants, who now have to worry about identity theft because their personal information was stored on ChildNet's stolen computer. These families report that they've had trouble reaching ChildNet employees to get information on how to protect themselves.

One woman reported, "I tried to call them yesterday and I tried to call them today, and it just rings and rings and rings. They have my fingerprints, they have my passport information, they have everything. It's scary, I can't even begin to tell you."

FBI involvement:
Last Friday, the FBI shut down ChildNet's main office and seized documents. The investigative report against ChildNet includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and an organized scheme to defraud the state, and these crimes fall under federal juridiction. Not to mention that the federal government, through the state, provides about $30 million of ChildNet's budget.

I'll keep you posted as this case unfolds...

Sources:
ChildNet agency's stolen laptop issue warrants FBI coverage. NBC-6, April 13, 2007.
FBI investigates non-profit child agency. United Press International, April 14, 2007.
Haas, Brian and Bill Hirschman. FBI seizes ChildNet records; CEO fired as more allegations mount against nonprofit. South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 14 2007.
Miller, Carol. FBI targets child care agency. Miami Herald, April 14, 2007.

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