Lawmaker: Kansas should cut ties with foster care contractor

Nov 15, 2022, 6:22 PM | Updated: Nov 16, 2022, 10:12 am
Kansas state Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, presides as chair over a meeting of the Legislature's ...

Kansas state Rep. Susan Concannon, R-Beloit, presides as chair over a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Concannon wants to end the state's contract with its largest foster care contractor after two former executives were accused of scheming to defraud the organization. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

(AP Photo/John Hanna)

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — The head of a Kansas legislative panel wants to end the state’s contract with its largest foster care contractor, after two former executives were accused of scheming to defraud the organization out of at least $4.7 million.

The federal indictments this month against the Rev. Robert Smith, the former CEO of Saint Francis Ministries, and William Whymark, its former chief information officer, capped a string of problems with the group, including children being forced to sleep in offices and workers falsifying documents to show visits with families that never took place.

“I am horrified at the level of devious behavior by Saint Francis,” state Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican and the chair of the Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight, said before a meeting Wednesday.

“The more we find out, the more we realize we don’t know! They do not deserve to continue a partnership with the state of Kansas in any capacity,” she said.

Saint Francis Ministries, which sued Smith, Whymark and its former chief counsel earlier this year in an attempt to recover money, said in a statement that it respects the criminal justice system to resolve the matter.

“We do not wish to interject any comments that might interfere with justice or the due process of the accused,” the group said.

Mike Deines, a spokesman with the Kansas Department for Children and Families, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Late last year, Nebraska did what Concannon proposed and announced that it was terminating its contract with Saint Francis to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in two Omaha-area counties.

Saint Francis had been exceeding Nebraska’s caseload requirements and ultimately conceded that it had underbid its contract with the state. It had to ask for more money. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it was a mutual decision to transition those management duties back to the state.

Saint Francis, which also operates in Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, has sought to distance itself from Smith and Whymark since they left in 2020 after a whistleblower came forward.

But the wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering charges have thrust past scandals back into the news. The charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

In the indictment, prosecutors allege that Smith hired Whymark’s company to help revamp Saint Francis’ IT systems and then approved inflated invoices.

Whymark, 50, of Mount Kisco, New York, is accused of using the the fraudulently obtained funds to help pay for a roughly $4 million home, luxury vehicles and jewelry, and to make cash withdrawals.

Smith, meanwhile, used company credit cards to withdraw cash and pay for clothing, jewelry and family trips, the indictment says.

Smith, 50, previously filed a counterclaim against Saint Francis officials alleging defamation. His attorney, Lance Sandage, didn’t immediately reply to a phone message seeking comment.

Smith has taken a leave of absence from Christ Cathedral in Salina, where he went to work after leaving Saint Francis. The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, which oversees Smith, had restricted his ability to serve as a priest for part of the time he was there. After the indictment, the diocese barred him from any ministerial duties or having any access to church funds.

Mark Cowell, who hired Smith and serves as the bishop of the western Kansas diocese, asked for prayer and “that justice be done.”

No attorney is listed for Whymark in online court records.

The Kansas foster care system has long been beset with problems. Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has vowed to make changes to the system and called for an investigation into the death of Cedric Lofton, a 17-year-old who was restrained face down for more than 40 minutes in 2021 at a Wichita juvenile intake center after his foster father called begging for help because the teen was hallucinating. Saint Francis was among the agencies involved.

An independent evaluation released this fall showed that some improvements had been made to the system, with children moving between placements less frequently.

But all four of the state contractors continue to report that some children are sleeping in offices and caseloads remain too high, according to the assessment, which is a condition of the state’s settlement of a class-action federal lawsuit with the advocacy group Kansas Appleseed and others.

Republican state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, of Louisburg, described Smith as a “wolf in sheep’s clothes” and the allegations as “absolutely beyond abhorrent.”

Baumgardner, who also serves on the Joint Committee on Child Welfare System Oversight, said the head of DCF should resign and that the agency needs a leader who will hold contractors accountable.

“There has been no action by the governor or by the secretary to pull the plug on Saint Francis,” she complained, adding that it “failed Kansas kids miserably.”

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Lawmaker: Kansas should cut ties with foster care contractor