Another audit criticizes DHS child nutrition program

For the third time this month, the state Comptroller’s Office has released an audit critical of a child nutrition programs overseen by the Department of Human Services, reports The Tennessean. In this one, $11.4 million in spending is questioned.

Most of the spending questioned in Tuesday’s audit involved food programs for low-income kids. The programs have been pored over by lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and have been the subject of an ongoing Tennessean investigation. Last week, the Comptroller issued two separate reports on private agencies now under criminal investigation for pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in food program funds that never made it to children.

The $80 million food program is intended to provide meals and snacks to kids who lack access to nutritious food in a Tennessee, where one in five children is at risk for hunger. The funds come from the federal government, but DHS is responsible for overseeing the programs. DHS contracts with private agencies, providing the money for food purchases distributed in child care centers, after-school and recreational programs.

Tuesday’s audit called into question more than 10 percent of the food program’s annual operating budget, based only on a review of a small sample of private agencies participating. The audit described multiple violations of federal regulations and basic accounting practices, including a lack of documentation for monies spent on food, a lack of verification that the agencies DHS contracts with are eligible to participate in the food programs and staffing shortages at DHS that threatened its ability to provide oversight and prevent potential fraud, waste and abuse.

In several examples cited in the audit, DHS provided cash advances for food purchases to agencies that never requested them. In one example, DHS provided a $311,993 cash advance to an agency whose entire annual operating budget was $124,000. In another example, an agency receiving an un-asked-for cash advance said it was waiting for DHS to ask for it back.

The audit places responsibility for the oversight failures on DHS management, including its commissioner, Raquel Hatter.

Hatter — through spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin on Tuesday — declined an interview request… Jarnagin sent a statement from DHS that said, in part: “It is important to note that while State Audit has questioned costs in their findings, it does not mean that the questioned costs are specifically the result of fraud, waste or abuse.”