Trou­bled non­profit was paid mil­lions by L.A. County de­spite re­peated warn­ings.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Gar­rett Therolf

Los An­ge­les County of­fi­cials paid a foster care non­profit mil­lions of dol­lars in tax­payer money even though gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­peat­edly warned of prob­lems with the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­clud­ing al­le­ga­tions of fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct and child abuse.

County of­fi­cials even­tu­ally sev­ered ties with Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World late last year af­ter the Los An­ge­les County dis­trict at­tor­ney filed crim­i­nal charges against the non­profit’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, CSJ Ki­dogo, and his wife, Ki­taji Ki­dogo, ac­cus­ing them of em­bez­zling and mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ing $460,000 of gov­ern­ment funds.

The Ki­do­gos have pleaded not guilty and are await­ing trial. One of their at­tor­neys, Austin Dove, said pros­e­cu­tors were try­ing to hold the cou­ple accountable for fi­nan­cial book­keep­ing rules that were never prop­erly com­mu­ni­cated by county of­fi­cials.

The crim­i­nal al­le­ga­tions against the Ki­do­gos raise ques­tions about the ef­fec­tive­ness of re­forms im­ple­mented in re­cent years by the county’s Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices to bet­ter mon­i­tor the foster care providers it hires. Two years ago, the agency hired ad­di­tional staff to guard against fi­nan­cial mis­con­duct fol­low­ing a se­ries of sto­ries by The Times that re­vealed that money in­tended for the care of chil­dren was of­ten mis­spent by con­tract providers.

In some cases, money was spent on per­sonal va­ca­tions, luxury cars, fine china and salaries for em­ploy­ees who didn’t ex­ist, The Times found. More than $11 mil­lion of county funds al­legedly had been mis­ap­pro­pri­ated by non­prof­its be­tween 2000 and 2010, county au­dits show.

Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World, which has re­peat­edly drawn

scru­tiny for ir­reg­u­lar spend­ing over the years, runs two group homes in Comp­ton and two in River­side County. The or­ga­ni­za­tion cared for about 28 chil­dren re­quir­ing high-level care be­cause of their spe­cial needs and re­ceived about $2.5 mil­lion an­nu­ally from the coun­ties.

In 2011, the L.A. County au­di­tor-con­troller iden­ti­fied $182,000 al­leged fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­eties. The bulk of the al­legedly mis­ap­pro­pri­ated money was used to pur­chase per­sonal prop­erty for the Ki­do­gos in River­side, North­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Ok­la­homa, ac­cord­ing to the au­dit. The county ini­ti­ated ef­forts to re­cover the money at that time.

As au­di­tors con­tin­ued their in­quiry, they learned in 2012 that large quan­ti­ties of em­ployee time cards, fi­nan­cial records and board of di­rec­tors meet­ing min­utes had been taken to the city dump in vi­o­la­tion of the agency’s con­tract with the county. Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World said that the mis­take was in­ad­ver­tent and that au­di­tors did not in­form the Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices, which over­saw the con­tract.

In May 2013, the au­di­tor­con­troller handed the Los An­ge­les County D.A. a sec­ond au­dit say­ing that not all the money re­ported in the 2011 au­dit had been re­paid and that the Ki­do­gos and their daugh­ter had re­ceived “ques­tion­able” raises of up to 134% — more than mak­ing up for the amount that had been re­paid. The au­di­tor rec­om­mended that the DCFS con­sider end­ing its re­la­tion­ship with Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World.

As the fi­nan­cial prob­lems sur­faced, so did re­ports of abuse.

In 2011, state reg­u­la­tors re­viewed sur­veil­lance video of Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World staffer Rashard McMor­ris drag­ging a 6-year-old across the floor and into an­other room. He was given a two-day sus­pen­sion and train­ing on how to re­spect foster youths’ rights, ac­cord­ing to county in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­ports.

Two years later, the records show, in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices re­viewed an­other video of McMor­ris push­ing an 11year-old into a wall. The force of the child’s head hit­ting the wall left a hole in the dry­wall, the records state. McMor­ris re­ceived train­ing on emer­gency in­ter­ven­tion tech­niques and was placed on con­di­tional em­ploy­ment sta­tus un­der a plan ap­proved by the state, ac­cord­ing to the county re­ports.

Nei­ther in­ci­dent was re­ported to law en­force­ment, a spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of So­cial Ser­vices said.

In Jan­uary 2014, a com­plaint to the county’s child abuse hot­line ac­cused McMor­ris of punch­ing a child in 2013. So­cial work­ers ruled the com­plaint un­founded, but McMor­ris was banned by the DCFS from fur­ther con­tact with Los An­ge­les County foster youths be­cause of prior in­ci­dents. McMor­ris could not be reached for com­ment for this story.

Fol­low­ing the D.A.’s charges, DCFS Direc­tor Philip Brown­ing re­moved all of the Los An­ge­les County chil­dren form Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World and can­celed its con­tract with the county. He said he did not act sooner be­cause he was un­aware of the child abuse find­ings. Staff re­ports he re­ceived did not con­tain that in­for­ma­tion, he said.

Thir­teen chil­dren from River­side County re­main in Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World homes. Jen­nie Pet­tit, as­sis­tant direc­tor of the River­side County Depart­ment of Public So­cial Ser­vices, said so­cial work­ers had stepped up their mon­i­tor­ing of the char­ity with weekly vis­its by so­cial work­ers.

The agency also ver­i­fied that the non­profit had suf­fi­cient cash on hand to care for the chil­dren and re­ceived as­sur­ances that the Ki­do­gos would no longer be in­volved.

“The chil­dren are safe, and their needs are be­ing met,” Pet­tit said.

Dove, one of the Ki­dogo’s at­tor­neys, said the em­bez­zle­ment charges were at odds with years of com­mu­ni­ca­tion his clients had with the DCFS.

He said Lit­tle Peo­ple’s World had been a li­censed con­trac­tor for 30 years, of­ten pass­ing county au­dits, and “re­ceived nu­mer­ous ac­co­lades” from the depart­ment.

“DCFS reg­u­larly drops the ball on train­ing and over­sight of its con­trac­tors. Then it ab­di­cates its short­com­ings to the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice for pros­e­cu­tion,” Dove said. “DCFS should fo­cus on get­ting its own house in or­der. Ul­ti­mately, the vic­tims of this process may be the chil­dren in the foster care sys­tem.”

“This spec­ta­cle is more about the con­tin­ued dys­func­tion of Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­ily Ser­vices than my clients’ crim­i­nal cul­pa­bil­ity,” Dove said.

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