State Ends Contract w/ Pro-Marriage Group - 9/04

Smart Marriages ® cmfce
Mon Sep 13 14:43:37 EDT 2004

subject: State Ends Contract w/ Pro-Marriage Group - 9/04

Maybe things would have turned out better if they'd attended Smart Marriages
instead of Fatherhood Conferences. Lots of good people in this part of
Virginia - hope some of you can pick up this grant. Please fill me in.
- diane

The Virginian-Pilot
x September 11, 2004

The goal of the Hampton Roads Healthy Marriage Coalition was a noble one:
Strengthen family relationships and get parents more involved with their
children, even if they don?t live in the same house.

On paper, the proposal by the upstart nonprofit group in Hampton looked
inspiring enough to win a million-dollar grant, mostly federal money, along
with a few state dollars. But one year and $227,000 later, the office is
locked and empty, and the director gone, with little to show for the money

Now the department is looking for another organization to complete the
mission of the grant, which still has three years and $800,000 to go.

Virginia Commissioner of Social Services Maurice Jones said he believes his
department erred in giving the organization the grant in the first place,
but he said it learned valuable lessons about how to go about selecting
nonprofit agencies for federal grants.

?When you do this kind of work, it requires not only a commitment to the
objective, but a well-managed enterprise,? Jones said. ?I did not see that
competence in this organization?s staff.?

The former director of the project, Jim Babineaux, reached through an e-mail
address in Rio Rancho, N.M., where he now lives, said he believes the
program was effective and operating ?beyond federal and state expectations?
when he left the organization in late March.

But a former board member, Chuck Loomis, said the organization had
disagreements with the state, which led to the withdrawal of the grant.

The Department of Social Services is awaiting word from federal grant
administrators and state officials about whether it should attempt to
retrieve any of the money.

Sherri Heller, commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement for
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday that her
department has reviewed a preliminary copy of the audit.

She said her department also will review the final audit and expenditures to
determine whether they are all legitimate items reimbursable by the grant.
Then, federal and state officials will discuss whether to return any of the
grant money to the federal office.

Heller said the grants are experimental in nature, and designed for grass
roots activities by community people. As a result, ?you sometimes get a
fiscal agent without the experience or confidence to handle a million-dollar
grant,? Heller said.

Jones said his biggest concern was that the organization failed to raise an
annual $125,000 in matching seed money required in the contract. The
organization also fell short in appointing a broad, community-based board of
directors, did not follow through on fledging projects and lacked internal
financial controls, said Jones and a state contract manager.

The main goal of the grant from the department was to fund demonstration
projects to help the staggering number of children who do not receive
support from non custodial parents. The idea was to find ways to increase
child-support payments, promote healthy marriages, and provide relationship
skills to couples and unwed parents. In 2003, the federal government gave
three of the grants to state child-support enforcement divisions in
Virginia, Michigan and Idaho, which in turn doled them out to community
agencies. Since then, similar grants have been awarded in four other states.

Virginia awarded the grant to the Hampton Roads Healthy Marriage Coalition,
which was proposed by Hampton-based Parents Educating Parents Inc. Todd
Areson, contract manager of the grant for the state?s Division of Child
Support Enforcement, said the state provided the first year?s matching funds
of $125,000, and the organization was to raise the same amount each year for
the remaining three years. The organization started several projects in late

One was a mentorship program in which seasoned couples were to work with
parents in less-stable families to develop relationship skills.

The organization also conducted some seminars and workshops to help people
strengthen their marriages and relationships. Also, the group pledged to get
churches and faith-based organizations more involved in teaching couples
about healthy relationships.

Areson said some of the first steps were taken, but attempts at
follow-through faltered this year. He said the attempt to rally churches and
faith-based groups failed to get more than a couple of groups involved.
Seminars were held to train mentors, but few were hooked up with other
families. The coalition was to build liaisons with community groups that
already existed, but little of that was done, Areson said.

According to the organization?s Web site, several employees did attend a
number of national conferences. For instance, the director and other staff
members attended marriage and fatherhood conferences in Washington, New
Orleans, and Orlando.

The group failed to appoint a community-based board of directors, state
officials said, and still had several openings to fill on a nine-member

In March, Areson said, he got wind of a personnel issue with the
organization. Areson would not comment on what the problem was, but he said
he asked the director and another employee to resign. Areson said he then
asked the remaining board members to come up with a plan to get the program
moving in the right direction.

But as the weeks and months passed, he said, board members were not
?stepping up to the plate x in providing a strategic plan and periodic

?My gut feeling was this was going south instead of north,? Areson said.

In April, Areson recommended that an audit be conducted. He said the audit,
which was recently made final, showed poor financial controls, sloppy
bookkeeping, use of grant money for objectives not related to the grant?s
proposal, and ?mingling? of different grants, which was not permitted by the

In the past couple of months, many of the board members have resigned. By
late August, state officials removed the furnishings from the office on West
Queen?s Way. The state attorney general?s office is also reviewing the

Loomis said the termination of the grant led to the folding of both the
Healthy Marriage Coalition and its parent organization, Parents Educating
Parents. ?The grant was the largest part of our funding,? Loomis said. ?This
is what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket.?

Loomis said that he and Babineaux, the project?s former director, thought
the agency was beginning to do good work but that it struggled to raise
money. ?I can tell you that was huge,? Loomis said. He said the state and
the organization didn?t agree on whether objectives were met.

Areson and Jones said the next organization chosen to fulfill the mission
will need to prove it is capable of pitching in $125,000 a year during the
remaining three years of the grant, and also that it is adept at handling
grants. It also must have strong internal policies and procedures in place
long enough to establish a solid track record, they said.

Areson also believes that the organization needs more input from government
agencies, such as court and child-support enforcement offices, in order to
reach the population targeted by the grant.

Jones said his department will first try to find a replacement organization
in Hampton Roads. But he said if they cannot find one here, state officials
will look elsewhere in the state.

While Jones said that the department failed to adequately screen and select
an appropriate organization, he also said that was the chance they took to
get a grassroots, community-based group.

?Pilots are in and of themselves experiments,? Jones said. ?I would not go
so far as to say it?s been a waste. We learned we need to be more rigorous
in evaluating organizations.?

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