DHS says it probably cannot determine whether preschool received fraudulent funds for adopted Harris girls | Arkansas Blog

Friday, April 3, 2015

DHS says it probably cannot determine whether preschool received fraudulent funds for adopted Harris girls

Posted By on Fri, Apr 3, 2015 at 7:48 PM

MORE QUESTIONS: Did the preschool owned by Justin and Marsha Harris improperly receive USDA money for the couple's adopted girls? - BRIAN CHILSON
  • MORE QUESTIONS: Did the preschool owned by Justin and Marsha Harris improperly receive USDA money for the couple's adopted girls?

Early this week, I reported on allegations made by five former workers at Growing God's Kingdom, the West Fork preschool owned by Rep. Justin Harris and his wife, Marsha Harris, that employees at the school were told by the Harrises to sign in the couple's two adopted daughters as "present" on days when they were not in attendance. (The Harrises later "rehomed" the girls with another family, where one was then sexually abused, as documented by the Times earlier this month.)

The accounts of the five workers raised the question of whether Growing God's Kingdom may have received public money fraudulently. We've now received a response from the Department of Human Services that sheds more light on the topic. If the five former workers are telling the truth about the falsified sign-ins, then it appears the preschool did improperly receive reimbursements of federal funds for the adopted children's meals. The preschool evidently did not receive other state or federal funds for the girls' tuition, DHS confirms.

However, according to a DHS spokesperson, it may not be possible for the state to verify whether or not the girls were in attendance, since the allegedly fraudulent sign-ins would have occurred some two years ago. 

There are three primary public funding streams that a preschool might receive for a child in its care. First, the Arkansas Better Chance program, or ABC, subsidizes pre-K tuition for some 3- and 4-year-olds. Second, some low-income families are eligible for a federal tuition voucher program associated with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Third, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) pays for meals of students from lower-income homes, a program similar to but distinct from free and reduced-price lunches in K-12 schools. Eligibility for each of those programs depends primarily on family income, although with exceptions.

In Monday's article, I focused mostly on ABC funding, since that program includes families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line (and perhaps even higher, depending on the circumstances). I tried to determine whether the Harrises may have been ABC-eligible, based on what limited information we know about their finances.

Today, DHS spokesperson Amy Webb offered a definitive comment about the first two funding streams: "No ABC or voucher funding was paid to GGK in 2013 related to any of the Harris dependents."

For the USDA money, though, it appears that all children at the preschool would have received a public benefit regardless of their family's income. Webb said, "Because at least 75 percent of the facility’s enrolled children were eligible for free or reduced lunches, federal regulations deem all children in that program eligible. So if a dependent of the family was in attendance and ate meals or snacks, GGK would be reimbursed for that."

This is significant. Several of the workers who contacted the Times said they specifically saw the girls signed in for meals on days they weren't around.

"At the school, they would sign the girls in as if they were there because they do get paid for them being in the school. They get paid for the breakfast, they get paid for the lunch. ... Their name was signed in, but they weren’t there," said one former worker (the "fifth worker" quoted in the previous article).

Another worker (the "fourth worker," previously) said, "they got child nutrition money ... I saw the sign-ins happen."

But Webb said it may not be possible to determine whether the girls — or any students — were actually in attendance or not, given that this would have happened in late 2012 and throughout 2013. The Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education is the arm of DHS that oversees funding for preschool programs, and Webb said the Division "has completed all the required reviews of GGK and the center has provided all required documentation to show compliance with program guidelines." 

If that documentation itself were forged, though, as these former workers allege, what then? "Because of the time that has elapsed, it would be difficult if not impossible for the Division to verify whether specific students were actually in attendance on certain days two or three years ago in which documents indicate they were there. Had the Division been made aware of the allegations at the time, we would have been able to investigate them," Webb said.

One of the workers suggested previously that her account could be verified by comparing the attendance record with security camera footage from the preschool. But Webb said that would be impractical, given that over a thousand hours of footage might need to be reviewed and many other logistical concerns. It's also not likely the school has retained such footage from that long ago.

The workers contacted the Times independently of one another after reading the initial March 5 story that revealed the two girls were sent by the Harrises to live with another family only about seven months after their adoption was finalized. They were ages 5 and 3 at the time they were "rehomed" in late 2013. The 5-year-old girl was then sexually abused by the father at the new home, Eric C. Francis, before the sisters were moved to a third family in early 2014.

None of the former employees were willing to use their names on the record. Some said they were afraid of being sued if they allowed their names to be made public.

However, if former (or current) workers have information pertinent to the issue of the sign-ins at Growing God's Kingdom, they can contact the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education at DHS.

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