State regulators are shutting down Give Us This Day, an embattled Portland foster care agency that got $1.5 million a year from the state of Oregon to care for some of the state's most troubled children.
On Sept. 28, a former Give Us This Day staff member, Rachel Rosas, told the Senate interim Human Services Committee that children entrusted to the organization went hungry, slept in filthy beds that lacked sheets, and were regularly neglected. That treatment came in spite of state contracts that paid Give Us This Day a minimum of $118 per day per child.
"There was no budget for groceries," says Rosas, who worked in a group home for 15 girls. "It was disgusting."
Newly released state documents shed light on a burning question about Give Us This Day: What happened to the money?
Give Us This Day's longtime leader, Mary Holden, has been waging a PR battle since WW revealed problems at her organization.
Two weeks ago, Give Us This Day supporters picketed the Oregon Department of Justice, and foster parents loyal to Holden rallied Sept. 26 at her office on Northeast Killingsworth Street.
But the results of a long-running investigation by the DOJ have shut down her operation for good.
Records obtained by WW on Sept 28 reveal that after the department began asking questions in March 2013, Holden failed to produce documents or show up for scheduled interviews and accused the DOJ of racial discrimination.
A letter she wrote last year captured her stance.
"To us, it feels like we have a Mississippi burning, 2014, Oregon style," Holden wrote in a June 2014 letter responding to requests for financial records. "It is covert and overt racism and a misuse of power at its best."
But when the DOJ obtained Give Us This Day's bank records, investigators found that for years—during which children were allegedly neglected, employees unpaid and Give Us This Day failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes—Holden engaged in "lavish expenditures from corporate accounts, including frequent cash withdrawals with no documented purpose, travel, restaurant dining, and purchases of clothing and other personal items that appear unrelated to GUTD's foster care mission."
Among the expenses from the past five years the DOJ documented were:
• "Over $441,000 in cash or other unexplained withdrawals has been taken from GUTD's accounts."
• $131,000 in improper travel expenses. Holden claimed she spent the money while scouting possible locations for expansion to other states, which the DOJ deemed "not a reasonable business decision." At least $18,000 of the travel dollars were spent at casinos and resorts, including the Venetian Palazzo, Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, Horseshoe Casino & Hotel, Westin Maui Resort and many others.
• $20,408 spent at local restaurants and more than $10,400 spent at nail and eyebrow salons.
• "Over $35,000 of GUTD funds have been spent on purchases from adult clothing and lingerie retailers such as Coach, Midnight Velvet, Victoria's Secret, Michael Kors, and Louis Vuitton. Purchases from Louis Vuitton alone total $11,845.90."
State lawyers found that last expense particularly puzzling. "It is difficult to fathom," DOJ lawyer Heather Weigler wrote to Give Us This Day's attorney on Feb. 10, 2015, "how such expenses could be related to the organization's charitable mission."
As WW reported earlier, Give Us This Day had run four group foster homes in Portland, but was forced to sell three of them and now faces seizure of its flagship property on Northeast Rodney Avenue.
The DOJ investigation found that Give Us This Day's board, all of whom except Holden live in Mississippi or Texas, shirked their duties to safeguard the nonprofit's assets.
The board did make sure Holden was well-compensated—records show they agreed to pay her a $90,000-a-year salary and agreed to lease her West Linn home from her for seven years for $2,850 a month. (Holden says she often went without either payment.)
On Sept. 18, Holden and her board agreed to a civil settlement agreement with the DOJ that dissolves Give Us This Day. The agreement cites improper expenditures and mismanagement resulting in a "loss of charitable assets [that] exceeds $2 million."
Give Us This Day's insurer agreed to pay the state $500,000 in compensation. Board members agreed to a five-year ban from serving as board members or managers of an Oregon nonprofit. Holden cannot do nonprofit work for seven years or work in any capacity that would grant her access to state funding for the same period.
Holden says a combination of her desire to provide jobs and what she says is the state's lousy payment system for foster care explain the financial problems.
She says the expenditures the DOJ judged inappropriate were a reflection of those pressures. "We had 70 employees in the African-American community, and most of the time, I wasn't getting paid," Holden says. The clothing and luggage purchases, she says, were allowable uses of her expense account. "I've tried to help people, and I've made sacrifices," Holden says. "And they make me out to be a bad person."
State Department of Human Services officials have said they will arrange new placements for Give Us This Day's 26 remaining foster children as soon as possible.
Holden's continued ability to win contracts with the DHS despite Give Us This Day's well-documented financial problems sparked disbelief from lawmakers at a Sept. 28 hearing.
But DHS Child Welfare Director Lois Day said it wasn't really her agency's responsibility to monitor how Give Us This Day handled the money the state paid it.
"We're putting children into a facility that can't afford to feed them or pay staff," said Sen. Alan Olson (R-Canby). "It just amazes me that nobody has taken the time to examine this organization's solvency. You're dealing with children's lives, and you don't really care."
This story was published in print with the headline, "Give Us That Money."