Crime & Courts

Wichita group home put foster kids at risk of ongoing harm, suspension order says

Carla’s Youth Residential Center was located in this house at 1065 N. Topeka in Wichita. The state suspended its group boarding home license — a decision the facility is now asking a judge to review.
Carla’s Youth Residential Center was located in this house at 1065 N. Topeka in Wichita. The state suspended its group boarding home license — a decision the facility is now asking a judge to review. The Wichita Eagle

The state suspended a Wichita group boarding home’s license after a federal agency said it suspected the foster care children living there had been sexually and physically abused.

Failures at Carla’s Youth Residential Center, 1065 N. Topeka, created a situation that put children “at risk of on-going physical and emotional harm,” according to an emergency suspension order issued to the home on Nov. 20. Federal officials “have reason to believe that the residents ... are not in a safe living environment and have been the victims of sexual and physical abuse,” it says.

The order did not give details about the exact nature of the suspected abuse or when it might have occurred. But it does say that the Kansas Department for Children and Families licensing division started investigating the home on Nov. 17 after receiving a report of “potential inappropriate contact of a sexual nature” between residents that staff may have known about.

The order also says the home’s executive director and her facilities are the subject of an ongoing federal investigation and investigations by two state agencies.

Carla’s Youth Residential Center, in response, has asked for a Sedgwick County judge to review the suspension decision.

In a petition filed in state court last month, the home said it operates “in a good and proper manner that does not endanger children” and its license suspension was based on “opinion accusation” rather than facts. “At the time of the Emergency Order no children were at risk in any way” at the facility, the petition says.

The home’s executive director, Carla Hobbs, said Thursday that she needed to consult with her attorney before speaking with The Eagle about the matter. An attorney for the boarding home, Eric Strickler, did not return a voicemail message.

Carla’s Youth Residential Center received its group boarding home license in 2009. It housed teenage girls, ages 13 to 17, according to a list of residential placement providers posted on DCF’s website. Up to 10 lived there at a time.

The home’s license was last renewed in March of 2015, according to the emergency suspension order.

All of the girls living there were removed on Nov. 17, Kansas Department for Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel said. They have since been placed at other group homes, in foster care homes or were reintegrated into their own homes, she said.

Currently, 27 group boarding homes and 34 residential facilities for youth are licensed to operate in Kansas. In those, a total of 843 beds — 685 in residential facilities and 158 in group homes — are available for children in foster care.

In addition to the group boarding home at 1065 N. Topeka, Hobbs ran two housing programs designed to prepare older teenage girls and young women to live on their own, according to the provider list. One is located at 3401 W. 13th St. N. and the other is at 901 N. Market. There were a total of 18 beds at those buildings. Those homes were not mentioned in the suspension order.

The suspension order and an amended suspension order, obtained through a DCF records request, give a time line of events leading up to the girls’ removal from Carla’s Youth Residential Center. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General denied the Eagle’s request for records, saying it could interfere with an ongoing investigation. The events noted in the orders are:

▪ In October, the Kansas Department of Labor’s division of worker’s compensation fraud and abuse unit contacted DCF to tell the agency about penalties against Carla’s Youth Residential Center and another of Hobbs’ facilities. The penalties include $25,000 owed in a 2015 case, $52,250 in penalties owed to the division and $2,019.10 in restitution owed to Via Christi Hospital. The labor department asked whether Hobbs received any state money from or through DCF for services provided to children “and advised she could be shut down at any time.” The division also told DCF that Hobbs had “improperly registered a new business,” Cassiel Children’s Services, at the same address as the group boarding home.

▪ On Nov. 13, 2017, DCF’s licensing division received a complaint and began investigating Carla’s Youth Residential Center over “concerns of lack of supervision, prohibited punishment and lack of caregiver qualifications.” That investigation was ongoing when the amended emergency suspension order was filed Jan. 19.

▪ Four days later — on Nov. 17, 2017 — a special agent with the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General told DCF that, based on an ongoing federal investigation into Hobbs and her facilities “it is my belief that probable cause exists to show that Ms. Hobbs is not performing the services required of a Youth Residential Care Center.” That agent also noted that residents of Hobbs’ facilities were not believed to be in a safe living environment and were suspected victims of physical and sexual abuse.

▪ On Dec. 18, 2017, DCF substantiated a complaint against Carla’s Youth Residential Center for “lack of supervision of children in care.”

▪ On Dec. 21, DCF substantiated another complaint against the facility for “lack of supervision, inappropriate sexual contact with staff knowledge, and other regulatory violations with health assessments and stair handrails.”

Meier-Hummel, the DCF secretary, said she could not give additional specifics about the allegations because of the ongoing investigations.

But, she said, DCF has been in contact with the federal inspector general’s office “from the moment they got involved.”

“We’d been given assurance that no children’s safety was at risk until the date in which we moved everyone (out),” Meier-Hummel said.

There had been concerns about the home called into DCF “on a number of occasions” in the past, she said. But, she said, reports like that aren’t unusual for facilities housing high-needs and foster care children. She would not give details about what those concerns were, saying: “If the end result is a criminal investigation all of that ... is likely to come out as a part of that investigation.”

Asked whether she expected an criminal investigation in this case, Meier-Hummel said: “I think there is the potential. I don’t know that we know that for sure at this point in time.”

“I would say that just in general, it (the facility) was not deemed to be a safe living environment and that there was concern about, again, serious abuse or failure to protect and potential emotional harm,” Meier-Hummel said.

“We have lots of very dedicated providers and foster care providers who provide exceptional care, so it’s certainly concerning any time we have a group home where there’s concerns,” she said. “And we take that very serious both on the child welfare side as well as on our investigative side.”

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker