By SHERMAN SMITH
TOPEKA — The largest foster care provider for Kansas has removed its top two leaders following an investigation into alleged mismanagement, and the Kansas Department for Children and Families was reviewing the situation to determine whether state resources were properly handled.
Saint Francis Ministries informed staff Thursday that the Rev. Robert Smith and CEO Tom Blythe won’t return to the organization. William Clark, who has been chief of staff since last year, will serve as interim president and CEO.
The board of directors for the nonprofit, private contractor initiated an investigation last month after receiving a whistleblower complaint alleging mismanagement. The organization declined to disclose details of the allegations except to say that they didn’t involve improprieties with children.
The Salina-based organization is responsible for about 3,000 children in the Kansas foster care system, and also provides services in Nebraska, five other states and Central America.
Clark said “timely and appropriate action was taken” after receiving the whistleblower complaint. The organization hired Chris McHugh, an attorney in Kansas City, Kansas, to investigate.
“Saint Francis Ministries’ leaders have been in regular contact with Kansas and Nebraska officials, keeping them up to date on our leadership change,” Clark said. “Our services and contracts in those states are unchanged. We will continue to communicate directly with our state partners.”
He said he was “unable to speculate as to whether someone will file a lawsuit” in relation to the alleged mismanagement.
DCF spokesman Mike Deines said he didn’t know whether the agency had been given a copy of the whistleblower’s report.
“DCF looks forward to further discussion with Saint Francis to learn more about what their investigation revealed,” Deines said. “And we will continue to do our due diligence to ensure that Kansas resources were properly handled and that Saint Francis continues to meet the outcomes laid out in its contract with the state.”
For the past decade, the state’s foster care system has been maligned over scandals involving the abuse and deaths of children, kids sleeping in office spaces, missing runaways, human trafficking and other horrors.
In July, Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration settled a lawsuit with Kansas Appleseed over the mistreatment of foster children and instability within the system. The administration promised to reduce case loads for social workers and the frequency in which children are moved from one home to another, among other concessions.
Advocates argue the problems are rooted in policies enacted by the Legislature under former Gov. Sam Brownback that contributed to a rapid increase in the number of children in the foster care system. The administrations before Kelly also secretly withheld millions in payments to Saint Francis, placing the organization in financial peril.
Sherman Smith has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where he started on the copy desk, then oversaw digital operations, was the managing editor and reported from the Statehouse. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.