A Carson-based foster agency under scrutiny for its management practices paid a former executive an annual salary of more than $227,000, making her the highest-paid foster family official in Los Angeles County, according to a county audit released Friday.
Along with the salary -- more than 70% higher than any other comparable foster family executive -- the audit disclosed more than $320,000 in questionable expenses, including $65,697 in credit card payments for clothing, travel, toys, meals, flowers and movie tickets that did not have itemized receipts or other supporting documents.
The International Foster Family Agency is a private group that contracts with the county to place children with foster families and monitor their care. The agency, one of Los Angeles County's largest, also has offices in San Bernardino and Riverside counties and receives funding from all three counties.
During the period under review -- July 2000 to June 30, 2001 -- the agency placed 384 children in 189 certified homes. The former chief executive, Louise Fernandez, was terminated in September 2002, and the agency has since undergone significant management changes, according to county Auditor-Controller J. Tyler McCauley.
The auditor has initiated a review of the agency's 2001-02 financial operations and is urging that the group improve its bookkeeping and management procedures.
Fernandez could not be reached for comment Friday. Neither International officials nor their attorney returned calls seeking comment.
The agency previously said it was undergoing reforms and taking strong measures to comply with state and county requirements. From July 2000 to June 30, 2001, International received $5,286,572 from Los Angeles County and $1,389,612 from San Bernardino and Riverside counties in foster care funds, according to the report. About $2,731,000 of those amounts was paid to foster parents and the rest was used by the agency.
In January, the state moved to revoke the agency's license, alleging that it failed to ensure the health and safety of children under its supervision. International had been cited for such violations as allowing unqualified staff to evaluate potential foster families, failing to perform adequate criminal background checks and failing to make timely reports of alleged sexual abuse.
State authorities said they are negotiating a settlement in which the agency would keep its license but have to improve its operations.
Los Angeles County child welfare officials stopped sending children to the agency, citing its noncompliance with state regulations.
On Friday, county officials said they are giving the agency an April 1 deadline to resolve issues raised in the financial review or they may consider terminating its contract.
Genevra Gilden, director of quality assurance for the Department of Children and Family Services, said that county social workers are monitoring the agency's foster homes and that children do not appear to be in danger.
But she said International's management continues to be in turmoil, with uncertainty over who has legal control of the group and whether it has the proper number of board members.
"A lot is in doubt," Gilden said. "They do try to respond, but when we check out their responses we're finding some credibility issues."
A separate investigation by the county auditor-controller found that the agency improperly paid $8,000 in living expenses to the current executive, Betty Jones. The agency has since stopped the payments and recovered those expenses.
Auditors also found that rental of a Cadillac Seville at $699 per month used primarily to benefit International's management was "unreasonable and unnecessary." The auditors are continuing to look at the use of a Cadillac Escalade that is being rented for $1,083 a month.
The report also questioned a payment of $754 in salary to a 16-year-old foster child of Louise Fernandez with no documents indicating the girl's job title or duties. County auditors also confirmed that two former employees have initiated lawsuits for wrongful termination.