Tag Archives: DHS

DHS reports to legislators on child nutrition program

State Department of State Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter told legislators Thursday that the department is making progress in dealing with troubles in an $80 million program that provides food to low-income children.

From The Tennessean:

Hatter on Thursday told lawmakers with the Senate Finance Ways & Means Investigations and Oversight subcommittee that the department had made progress in implementing a new computer system to better track subcontractors who distribute meals and snacks to children. Hatter described how the agency is meeting the requirements of the new law, requiring subcontractors to obtain bonds, running criminal background checks and better training staff.

In previous hearings, Justin Wilson, the state comptroller, has been critical of DHS for not acknowledging the extent of the problems with the program, which is intended to feed children at risk for hunger during the summer months and in after-school and other programs during the school year, when public schools provide free meals.

“You can’t really solve a problem until you acknowledge that the problem is really there,” Wilson said earlier this year. “It’s time for DHS to admit they have a problem.”

On Thursday, Lauren Plunk, the comptroller’s deputy chief of staff, told lawmakers that auditors are reviewing DHS once again as part of an annual audit of all state agencies receiving federal funds and expect to release their report next spring.

“We believe there is a path forward if everybody is willing to understand the fundamental issues at hand,” she said.

Hatter told lawmakers that the agency was “helping to reposition Tennessee’s food program (to) make it stronger than it has ever been in its history.”

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.”

DHS meals-for-kids program under scrutiny again

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Department of Human Services program that provides meals to children at risk for hunger is under scrutiny over a lack of oversight.

The Tennessean (http://tnne.ws/1Ubonsj ) reports that a federal review issued last month found multiple instances of lax oversight by the DHS. The review also found there is a lack of adequate level of staffing to properly oversee the program.

According to the review, the department currently has three open positions for department auditors who are supposed to review the program for waste, fraud and abuse.

Lawmakers are now working on oversight measures for the DHS.

State Sen. Jim Tracy says the measures would make sure that contractors are getting food to children in need. His bill would require the DHS to provide regular reports to lawmakers.

Drug tests for welfare: 65 positives, 116 drop application

A Tennessee law requiring drug screening and testing of those applying for welfare benefits has yielded few positives for illicit drugs, reports The Tennessean. But scores of people have walked away from the application process.

Just 65 of 39,121 people applying for a cash assistance program known as Families First in Tennessee tested positive for illegal substances or drugs for which they had no prescription since the law was implemented July 1, 2014, according to data provided by the Department of Human Services to The Tennessean.

An additional 116 refused to participate in an initial drug screening questionnaire, automatically disqualifying them for benefits.

The total cost of drug testing so far: $23,592.

Opponents of the drug testing requirement point to the small fraction of people testing positive for drugs — less than 1 percent of all applicants tested positive — as a sign the policy is a failure based on an unfair perception that poorer Tennesseans are more likely to abuse drugs.

“I thought the legislation when it passed was ridiculous,” said state Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat. “I still think it’s ridiculous. Obviously the numbers don’t justify the cost, and in other states that have done this program their numbers don’t justify this cost either.”

But Rep. Glen Casada, who voted in favor of the law, disagrees.

“When you add up the 116 (who refused to go through drug screening) to the 65 people (who failed a drug test), that’s 175 or 180 people no longer receiving taxpayer-funded support for illegal activities,” the Republican lawmaker said. “It’s a good investment that those who receive support at the largesse of taxpayers should not be using it to fund illegal activities.”

The average monthly benefit of the cash assistance program was $165 per month in December – or $1,980 per year. The 116 people who refused to take the test otherwise might have cost $230,000 each year, had they gone forward and otherwise qualified for benefits.

DHS proposes cutbacks, cites decline in food stamp, welfare recipients

From The Tennessean:
The state agency in charge of providing food stamps, temporary cash assistance to needy families and child care subsidies for low-income kids is proposing a $3 million budget cut for next year, citing economy-driven declines in the number of Tennesseans dependent on government subsidies.

Department of Human Services chief Raquel Hatter also proposed eliminating staff in a division that oversees fraud, abuse and waste and ensures department accountability — at a time when lawmakers, the Tennessee comptroller’s office and investigations by The Tennessean have raised questions about the agency’s oversight abilities after revealing millions of dollars in questionable DHS payments to subcontractors.

…Hatter’s budget presentation Monday was the first from 26 state agency heads expected to appear before Gov. Bill Haslam this week as he crafts an annual spending proposal that probably will top $34 billion. Haslam has asked all agencies, including DHS, to present proposed 3.5 percent cuts in their budgets.

Six of 97 positions would be eliminated in the Division of Quality Improvement and Strategic Solutions and seven of 125 staff positions would be cut in the the Office of Inspector General, which investigates referrals of potential fraud, waste and abuse in the programs. All of those positions are currently vacant, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin. Jarnagin said none of the proposed eliminated positions are directly related to fraud, and some of the proposed cuts relate to decreasing caseloads in the agency’s food stamp and Families First, Tennessee’s welfare-to-work programs.

The number of families served by the state’s food stamp program has decreased about 12 percent between January 2014 and October 2015, while the caseload for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has decreased by about 30 percent, according to Jarnagin. The state’s child care subsidy program has decreased by 32 percent.

The reductions, Hatter said Monday, “will have no impact on services.”

At a hearing in August, lawmakers quizzed Hatter on whether she had enough staff to adequately monitor fraud and abuse in food programs for low-income children after numerous reports of fraud. At the time, Hatter responded, “I don’t know because we haven’t done an analysis.”

…Since Haslam took office, DHS has cut 838 employees, or 15 percent of its staff, from 5,564 positions in 2012 to 4,726 this year. Two hundred of those job cuts were a result of shifting responsibility for processing TennCare applications to the TennCare Bureau.

In total, Hatter is requesting 131 staff cuts and a $3 million reduction in state funds for the agency for the 2017 fiscal year — between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017. The agency’s total annual budget tops $3 billion, with the largest portion funded by federal dollars for social service programs such as food stamps, subsidized child care and welfare-to-work program costs.

Lawsuit filed against DHS child nutrition program

An agency that contracted with the Department of Human Services to feed low-income kids in Memphis has filed suit, alleging it was wrongly terminated from the program, reports The Tennessean.

Building Futures was among the larger non-profit providers of meals and snacks for poor children in Tennessee. It was one of hundreds of non-profit agencies that contract with DHS to distribute food in Tennessee, where one in four children is at risk for hunger. DHS paid Building Futures up to $400,000 per month in 2014 for serving food at 124 sites throughout Shelby County.

But DHS and Building Futures are at odds over the exact number of meals served. DHS terminated Building Futures from its program earlier this year, barring its husband and wife operators, Bailey Phillips and Lisa Turner, from working for any similar program. The company had been operating in Arkansas for six years. Because Tennessee placed the couple on a list of banned operators, they also lost their contract with Arkansas, according to a spokeswoman with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

The lawsuit against DHS comes as the department faces criticisms over poor oversight of two programs designed to reach at-risk children with nutritious meals. DHS is responsible for operating the Child and Adult Care Food Program, as well as a summer food program for children — distributing close to $80 million in federal dollars to middlemen like Building Futures.

An audit by the Tennessee Comptroller questioned millions of dollars in payments to some agencies, and cited poor oversight and fraud. DHS officials have said some of those payments were about incorrect paperwork, rather than fraud.

Fraud in child food programs blamed on ‘understaffed and disorganized’ DHS

At least four companies that opened Tennessee operations as nonprofit efforts to feed poor children are under investigation for fraud, reports The Tennessean. The state Department of Human Services’ recently-resigned director of food programs says the state’s lax enforcement of rules is encouraging such things.

Carmen Gentry, said the state has attracted unscrupulous actors because of its reputation for poor oversight.

“They know to come to Tennessee because we are so disorganized and understaffed,” said Gentry, who resigned in July after a Tennessean report on potentially millions of dollars paid to agencies that never provided food to children.

“What they can’t get away with in neighboring states or their own states they know we can get away with in Tennessee,” she said. “You can’t run an $80 million federal program with hundreds of sponsors and agencies that are participating with six to eight full-time staff members. Most states have at least 20 to 30 to 40 people working on these programs.”

DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Jarnagin disputed Gentry’s characterization, saying, “USDA FNS (the federal food program oversight agency) has not identified this for Tennessee, nor do we have any indication that this is the case. However we have increased oversight of the programs since 2011 as part of our ongoing efforts to improve program integrity.”

Jarnagin cited design flaws in the federal program. Among them, there is no “National Disqualified List” for the summer food program that would have enabled DHS in the case of Kingdom Ministries to learn Nealy’s background — or those of other agency operators who had been found to have committed fraud in other states.

Gentry and DHS also are at odds over how well staffed the federal food programs are. Gentry said there were no more than eight full-time staff members while she directed the program — with DHS employees working until late at night each workday to process applications. Jarnagin said there were “over 40 positions dedicated to working on the food programs in the department.” USDA officials said last week based on their visit to Nashville, there were fewer than 10 employees directly working in Tennessee’s food programs.

DHS officials point out that Kingdom Dominion Worldwide Ministries, Teen Angels and Community Hospitality Outreach Program have all been terminated from the program. The agency has since implemented improvements in oversight, including conducting criminal background checks and a scanning system to reduce paperwork.

But the examples of subcontractor misspending illustrate how easy it is for bad actors to game the system in Tennessee. Some Tennessee-based agencies establish themselves as nonprofits just weeks or months before applying to be a DHS subcontractor, only to disband and disappear soon after raking in tens of thousands of dollars from the food program.

Holy Ground Christian Ministries established itself as a Tennessee agency in June. DHS is now trying to recoup more than $79,000 from the agency. Sweet Serenity House established itself in 2013 before applying to be a food program operator. The state is trying to get it to repay more than $192,000.

Kingdom Dominion Worldwide Ministries

TBI: State worker swapped food stamps for sex

News release from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
NASHVILLE – Special Agents from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have obtained indictments for a Nashville man accused of misusing his position as an Eligibility Counselor for the Department of Human Services.

After receiving information from the Tennessee Department of Human Services, and at the request of DHS and the 20th District Attorney General Glenn Funk, TBI Special Agents began investigating Alfred Awonuga on March 18th. During the course of the investigation, Agents developed information that from March 2014 through March 2015, Awonuga used his position to attempt to get a participant in the state’s food assistance program to have sex with him in exchange for benefits. Agents further learned Awonuga manipulated the program in a separate incident by obtaining benefits for an applicant who would otherwise not be eligible in an attempt to get the participant to have sex with him. When she declined, the investigation revealed Awonuga facilitated the termination of her benefits and later communicated with her that he could assist her in getting her benefits reinstated, while continuing to express a desire in a sexual relationship. The agency subsequently terminated his employment.

On August 28th, the Davidson County Grand Jury returned indictments for Awonuga, charging the 48-year-old with six counts of Official Misconduct and one count of Attempted Official Misconduct. Authorities arrested Awonuga and booked him into the Davidson County Jail, where at the time of this release, he was being held on $20,000 bond.

Troubled DHS children’s food program gets legislators’ attention

State Senate Finance Committee members Friday questioned Human Services Commissioner Raquel Hatter on problems plaguing an $80 million food program for poor children that could potentially cost taxpayers millions in fraud and misspending, according to The Tennessean.

Hatter testified that she took responsibility for oversight of the program, which feeds 80,000 Tennessee children during the school year and 42,000 children each day during summer months, but noted its problems long predated her taking office in 2011.

But Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson told lawmakers that auditors have found that problems with the program have only worsened in recent years.

The hearing was convened by lawmakers after a critical audit by the comptroller’s office and investigative reports by The Tennessean showed waste, fraud and abuse in a program designed to distribute snacks and meals to children living in poverty. Some 500,000 children in the state are at risk for food insecurity, creating a need that Tennessee officials, like those in many other states, have not yet been able to meet.

Hatter noted that there are weaknesses in the design of the program, which is funded purely with federal dollars. Other states have had similar challenges with fraud and waste in their food programs, she said. The program is due to be re-authorized by Congress, and Hatter said state officials will take the opportunity to weigh in on design changes.

She emphasized that the problems have not hindered getting meals to children.

“Children in Tennessee are still being fed,” she said. “It’s important to note that.”

In an annual audit of all state agencies, the comptroller found 65 deficiencies. Twenty-one of them were within the Department of Human Services — and 14 of those were in the food program.

…”My sense is we are looking for a solution we should have had before now,” said (Senate Majority Leader Mark) Norris, who urged Hatter to redouble her efforts to improve the program and report back on her progress.

Sen. Doug Overbey, a Maryville Republican, asked Hatter to keep a focus on both continuing to feed children and improving oversight.

“Let’s also focus on maintaining the integrity of the program, because taxpayers expect nothing less,” he said. “I hope this hearing will be a motivating factor.”

Democrats seek committee hearing on troubles in child nutrition program

News release from Rep. John Ray Clemmons
NASHVILLE, TN—Today, State Representative John Ray Clemmons (Nashville) joined his fellow Democratic members on the Joint Government Operations Committee to call on the Republican chairmen of the joint committee to request the appearance of Department of Human Resources Commissioner Raquel Hatter and Deputy Commissioner Petrina Jones-Jesz on Wednesday, August 19, 2015. Representative Clemmons and his colleagues’ joint request stems from recently reported allegations that children in Tennessee are being placed at risk for hunger because of a lack of leadership at the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

“If any of these allegations have merit, our state has failed the very children who rely on us the most, and this is unacceptable,” said Representative John Ray Clemmons. “I am certainly not going to sit on my hands and hope for leadership out of this Republican administration while kids across Tennessee go hungry.” Representative Clemmons added, “As one of the only remaining oversight bodies in the state legislature, our joint committee has a duty to provide leadership and oversight where it is otherwise sorely lacking. I, for one, intend to ask the hard questions and get to the bottom of these deeply troubling allegations.”

The reported allegations include fraud, greed and lack of oversight over an $80 million program that is, in some cases, the only source of nutritious food for 42,000 children during summer months and feeds 180,000 children during the school year.

The Democrats’ serious concerns are heightened in light of the enactment of SB63 (Kelsey/E. Smith) which permits local boards of education to refuse to accept federal funding for school food programs without penalty. No provisions were enacted to address how the state or local governments would fill the budgetary hole for these lost revenues to sustain operations.

The Democratic members of the Joint Government Operations Committee are Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart and State Representative John Ray Clemmons.

Note: Most recent previous post HERE. The referenced SB63 was approved by the Senate 28-3 and by the House 68-19. Bill info page is HERE.