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Financial issues cost foster care agency its L.A. County contract

Renee Moncito was a convicted thief and forger. She ran a foster care agency that was one of the most cited by state inspectors for lapses in care, including cases in which children were beaten, locked in their rooms for days or subjected to other mistreatment.

Yet year after year, the agency was re-approved by state and county officials, growing into one of the largest private foster family agencies in Los Angeles County, responsible for thousands of children over the years.

Wings of Refuge is now being terminated not because of abuse but after officials determined it had mismanaged millions in taxpayer dollars — a situation that has raised concerns about the county's ability to adequately monitor such groups.

The $3-million-a-year contract with Wings of Refuge was canceled after the group failed to file its financial forms for charitable organizations for three years and lost its tax-exempt status, a requirement for foster care agencies in California.

For years, state regulators had flagged Wings of Refuge as being at financial risk. The agency had accumulated $458,000 in delinquent payroll taxes and was more than $2 million in debt, according to licensing records.

County officials acknowledge they were slow to act.

"I think it's alarming that these kinds of situations exist and that we haven't done anything about it sooner," said Philip Browning, who was named director of Los Angeles County's Department of Children and Family Services in 2012 to help spur reforms.

Moncito, Wings of Refuge's chief executive, defended her record and blamed her agency's financial troubles on not receiving enough government money to care for children. "I have given way more than I have received," she said in a recent interview.

The county has begun to shift the nearly 200 foster children from Wings of Refuge to other agencies.

Wings' termination, effective Oct. 31, followed questions from The Times about Moncito's criminal history and the agency's record of physical and financial abuses.

In 1981, Moncito was convicted of grand theft and forgery related to passing bad checks.

Years of financial struggle followed her release, and personal bankruptcy records show that in 1998 she had $55 in savings and was $85,000 debt. Moncito founded Wings of Refuge that year and was awarded tax-exempt status.

The state Department of Social Services licensed the agency to recruit and supervise foster parents, and it gave Moncito a waiver allowing her to work in foster care despite her felony convictions. "My crime wasn't something that would impact children in an adverse manner," Moncito said.

State social services director Will Lightbourne declined to be interviewed about Wings of Refuge. His spokesman said the records related to the criminal waiver were more than a decade old, and he was unable to explain the rationale behind the decision.

Los Angeles County officials said they were unaware of Moncito's criminal past until learning of it from The Times. Browning, however, said: "If that person would have applied for a county job, they never would have a job. And those rules should apply to these employees as well."

Wings of Refuge grew quickly, eventually caring for more than 1,100 children over a recent three-year period.

Moncito also launched other enterprises: a Wings of Refuge branch in Texas, a drug treatment program in Los Angeles and a used-clothing business that sold items to foster children.

State and county officials had problems with monitoring Wings' finances. Officials gave Moncito many extensions to file information. She missed deadlines, and the information she submitted often was incomplete or misleading, according to state regulators.

In August, Wings was cited by the state for making "false claims" to hide some of the agency's financial problems.

Tracie Hicks, who was a Wings of Refuge foster parent for nearly a decade, said Moncito exploited the system to make money off of foster children.

"Wings of Refuge never should have existed in the first place," Hicks said. "They are poverty pimps — you know, people who sell out other people's misfortune to make money."

Among foster care providers in the county, Wings of Refuge has been one of the most cited by state child welfare inspectors for a variety of violations.

Moncito blamed the incidents on "professional foster children" who abused the complaint system to move from one foster home to another. She said her agency may have been too vigilant in reporting complaints to authorities.

"If you report all your incidents, you will have more incidents," she said. "My administrators over-reported."

Abuses substantiated by state investigators included those of a foster parent who twisted and pinched children's noses and another who repeatedly locked a small child in the garage or outside on cold nights. Some children were confined to their rooms for days at a time, leaving only to use the bathroom, according to state reports.

In one case, a state inspector found four foster children living in a home reeking of marijuana. The inspector said she left the home without completing the inspection or removing the children after "feeling seriously threatened" by an obscenity-spewing foster parent.

State officials determined that foster mother Abena Williams had bruised the children in her care with belt lashes across their backs, legs, arms and buttocks for more than a year. After hearing witness testimony, an administrative judge concluded that Williams also had slapped their faces, dragged them up stairs and bit their fingers.

Williams was banned by the state from foster care for two years.

County officials said these and other incidents were not a factor in canceling the contract.

But Jennifer Rodriguez, a former foster youth who now leads the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, said the cases established a pattern of negligence that should have prompted the county to shut down Wings of Refuge.

"Why didn't the county ever consider all these cases to be a pattern of abuse?" Rodriguez said. "Clearly, this foster family agency was not finding appropriate parents and was not providing the monitoring that taxpayers paid it to do."

The financial problems at Wings of Refuge could have been discovered earlier had there been stricter monitoring by the government. Officials acknowledge they do not have the staff to regularly scrutinize an industry of private foster family providers responsible for 15,000 children statewide and $350 million in taxpayer dollars annually.

In Los Angeles County, agencies usually receive government audits once a decade. They can take years to complete and carry little or no punishment. In other areas of the state, there have been no government audits for years.

"I'm not sure we know how much trouble is lurking out there," Browning said.

He said the state and county have little idea what the other is doing. The state is responsible for determining when an agency violates its licensing requirements, but county workers frequently do not have that information when they place children in homes.

In recent months, L.A. County has attempted to step up enforcement by increasing the frequency of financial reviews and doing more to identify patterns of abuse.

County supervisors this summer canceled the contract of one agency, Teens Happy Homes, after The Times published articles about abuse and mismanagement.

Browning said more contractors will probably be cut in coming months. "I think we have made some progress, but I don't think we are there," he said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a prepared statement that he supports further reform. He and his four colleagues on the board all declined to be interviewed about their handling of the Wings of Refuge contract.

"It is always distressing to hear of children being hurt by the very people we as a county have trusted to rescue them from abusive home environments. There is no excuse for this," Ridley-Thomas said in the statement.

His campaign returned $1,000 to Wings of Refuge after receiving questions about it from The Times. It is illegal for charities like Wings to make political contributions.

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writers Doug Smith and Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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