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Staffers use gift cards meant for kids

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County’s child welfare workers spent thousands of dollars in gift cards and entertainment tickets earmarked for foster children to buy themselves meals and attend musical events, according to an audit released Tuesday.

Among the most serious problems cited by auditors, county workers bought 160 tickets in July to see the hit musical “Wicked.” County officials said the purchase was part of a gala event for foster children and their mentors, yet only 53 children and roughly the same number of mentors were given tickets.

The remaining seats went to employees of the Department of Children and Family Services and their relatives and guests, along with unidentified potential mentors and a number of not-for-profit organization employees, auditors wrote. The event cost $14,000.

The audit of the department also faulted employees for using gift cards -- bought with county money to supply food and clothing to foster children -- to pay for staff luncheons.

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“It is appalling that children who have nothing are having even this very limited amount stolen from them,” said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “This is a stunning lack of accountability.”

Auditors said one worker attempted to hide extra gift cards the department received by asking the business that supplied the cards for false invoices. Another told auditors he or she no longer had any gift cards but actually had $23,000 worth of gift cards or certificates, the audit said.

In an excursion to the House of Blues in June, employees spent $5,700 on tickets for the Gospel Sunday Brunch performance. Of the 150 tickets purchased, 43 were given to children. The department said about the same number went to mentors.

The rest went to department employees and a department contractor. One department employee received seven tickets, the audit said. (Mentors are adult volunteers who offer guidance and support to foster children.)

“I think that several employees embarrassed the rest of the department with their extremely poor judgment,” said L.A. County Auditor-Controller J. Tyler McCauley. “They should be disciplined accordingly.”

The audit was prompted by a similar review earlier this year that criticized the county’s child welfare agency for wasting more than $1 million on unnecessary or overpriced equipment and failing to better oversee the use of gift cards meant for foster children.

Department director Patricia S. Ploehn, who had asked for the original audit, said she was disturbed by the latest findings. She said she has collected all of her agency’s remaining gift cards and introduced tighter rules for their use, including the need to provide receipts to show how they have been spent.

“Anyone in this department that would misuse county funds that were intended for children, the most vulnerable children -- it is completely intolerable to me and completely intolerable to this department,” Ploehn said, adding that she has begun disciplinary proceedings against several managers.

jack.leonard@latimes.com


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