Jul 09, 2024

Kan. suicide prevention nonprofit’s executive director, entire board of directors resign

Posted Jul 09, 2024 7:30 PM
 The entire board of directors and the executive director resigned from the Lawrence-based HeadQuarters Kansas, which operates the 988 suicide crisis call center for all 105 counties. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
The entire board of directors and the executive director resigned from the Lawrence-based HeadQuarters Kansas, which operates the 988 suicide crisis call center for all 105 counties. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Departures at HeadQuarters tied to staff rebellion, alleged misuse of grants

BY: TIM CARPENTER  Kansas Reflector

LAWRENCE — The interim executive director and the board of directors at the suicide prevention organization HeadQuarters Kansas resigned amid an uprising by employees and volunteers, allegations grant money was misappropriated and anxiety about potential loss of state and county funding.

Headquarters Kansas, which is based in Lawrence, operates the 988 suicide crisis call center for all 105 counties in the state. It is affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The departure Monday of Ruby Johnson, interim executive director; Michelle Fales, chair of the board of directors; and the recent resignation of five other board members was the culmination of months of management turmoil.

“We created new structures of accountability in our relationships with funders, partners and each other,” said Johnson, who agreed in April to assume the role of interim executive director and step down from the board of directors. “The agency faces new challenges, but it falls to others to address them. I am moving on with pride in the work done, secure in having navigated challenges with integrity and with love for those who exemplify the mission of building resilience and preventing suicide.”

Johnson replaced interim director Becky Price, who held the top job from February to April. Price was hired after the sudden departure in January of Steve Devore, who had been president and CEO of the organization since 2019.

In a memorandum to HeadQuarters Kansas staff, Fales said she tendered her resignation Monday after enduring months of “lies and threats” from individuals more interested in provoking controversy than achieving results. She assumed the role of board chair in November and initiated a survey of employees, board members and community partners in conjunction with the overdue employee evaluation of Devore’s work.

“These surveys opened up a can of worms, including the misuse of grant funds,” Fales said. “Management giving bonuses that were not permitted under the grant. Buying family golf memberships with grant funds. Buying over $5,000 in items for a ‘therapy’ dog.”

She asserted three administrative employees at HeadQuarters Kansas were responsible for oversight of an estimated $206,000 in expenditures from 2021 to 2023 that may not have complied with grant guidelines. The spending was embedded in budget documents in ways that made it difficult for the board to track, she said.

In 2022, Fales said, she had asked for clarity about bonuses given certain employees and was allegedly misled by Devore.

Fales said the board of directors eventually decided to seek the resignation or termination of two staff members, which included Devore.

Fales also complained that Andrew Brown, deputy secretary of programs at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, had been advising dissident staff and advocating for her to resign from the board. Prior to working at KDADS, Brown was executive director of HeadQuarters Kansas.

“The board has been slandered, threatened, intimidated, harassed while continuing to work in the best interest of keeping the organization solvent and clean up the messes made by prior management,” Fales said. “It has become abundantly clear that while most of the individuals working at HeadQuarters Kansas Inc. might be in the mental health arena, they have no desire to talk constructively with anyone that differs from their own opinions.”

The defection of Fales, Johnson and the other board members meant an attorney would likely be appointed to coordinate appointment of a new board of directors.

In April, 75 to 100 current and former employees and volunteers at HeadQuarters Kansas publicly demanded wholesale management change. In a letter to leaders of the organization Friday, the employee coalition vowed to initiate the equivalent of a strike if Fales and Johnson didn’t resign Monday.

The letter said HeadQuarters Kansas was in peril of losing state and county aid and the “unjust termination of our colleagues who voiced their concern or disapproval has changed our workplace culture from one of cooperation to one of fear and distrust.” There has been concern controversy at HeadQuarters Kansas could lead to loss of state funding for the 988 hotline, undermine appropriations from Douglas County and eventually force closure of the agency.

Hope Blankenship, vice president of operations at HeadQuarters Kansas, assumed the duties of executive director. Blankenship told the Lawrence Times there had been no interruption in the organization’s call, text and chat services.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline was implemented in Kansas during July 2022. In preparation for the launch, Kansas integrated HeadQuarters Kansas, COMCARE of Sedgwick County and Johnson County Crisis Line into the 988 network. The three centers operate with state funding and oversight from KDADS and the 988 Coordinating Council. In terms of the Lawrence facility, KDADS allocated $3.7 million to the agency during the 2023 fiscal year.