Broward County

Misconduct found at privately run child-welfare agency

Workers at Broward County’s privately run child welfare agency spent so much time doing free work at the Miami-Dade home of their boss that they jokingly called it the “Coral Gables office.”

ChildNet maintenance workers painted the house, delivered furniture, arranged for a locksmith to change keys, and spent hours searching Chief Operating Officer Dipakray M. Parekh’s BMW for a global positioning device because Parekh thought his ex-wife was spying on him, records say. Employees took Parekh’s car for oil changes and body work. All on company time, records say.

The allegations — confirmed by the Department of Children & Families’ inspector general — are among three investigations released in recent days to the Miami Herald, some containing claims of widespread irregularities. Among the findings:

▪  For about four years, and on “numerous occasions,” ChildNet maintenance workers performed “many non-business” tasks for Parekh and other managers, often using the agency’s pickup truck and equipment.

▪  ChildNet employees told DCF’s inspector general that Parekh engaged in “inappropriate conduct,” including “personal relationships with two female employees,” and that Parekh “assaulted” one of the two women. Parekh also was accused of sexually harassing female employees and exhibiting “aggressive behavior.”

▪  At least four ChildNet employees told DCF that “ChildNet senior executive staff behaved as if they were entitled to spend [DCF] contract funds as they pleased with little or no concern as to the source of the funding.”

▪  One ChildNet employee, Administrative Assistant Harry A. Kraft, worked as a volunteer firefighter in Plantation about 197 times while on duty for ChildNet. When confronted by investigators, Kraft acknowledged working for the fire department only “a couple of times on lunch,” though records from the city contradicted him. He later acknowledged the double-dipping.

▪  Agency foster care managers allowed children to sleep in a portion of ChildNet’s office building that was not licensed as a shelter, and were accused of manipulating DCF “scorecard” records by failing to count stays in the office building as a placement for children in state care — thus improving ChildNet’s ranking in comparison with other private providers under contract with the state.

Taken together, the investigations suggest longstanding management problems at ChildNet, which provides foster care, adoption and other child welfare services to more than 4,700 children in Broward and Palm Beach counties, under contract with DCF. ChildNet manages more than 90 contracts itself with dozens of service providers in the two counties.

In its current contract, ChildNet receives a little more than $100 million from the state, $62.8 million in Broward and another $41 million in Palm Beach.

An agency manager who initiated at least one of the probes, Facilities Manager George Bitton, had complained to ChildNet executives about agency “misconduct” before filing a report with Gov. Rick Scott’s Chief Inspector General in the winter of 2012, records show. But ChildNet dismissed Bitton’s report, concluding there was insufficient evidence to support it, and then failed to alert DCF or the governor’s office, as it was required to do.

When interviewed by the inspector general, former Executive Director Silvia Smith-Torres said ChildNet employees “overwhelmingly corroborated” Bitton’s complaints of wrongdoing. “There was no question in her mind,” the report said, “that Mr. Parekh had ChildNet employees perform personal work for him during business hours using ChildNet equipment and funds to do so.”

Smith-Torres “failed to understand how ChildNet concluded there was a ‘lack of meaningful corroborating evidence’,” as a ChildNet probe had concluded. A report said that, following ChildNet’s inquiry into Bitton’s allegations, Parekh was “counseled that, given his senior position, his behavior could lead to misunderstandings or suspected favoritism by other employees.” He apologized for his actions.

“In Ms. Smith-Torres’ opinion, executive management’s behavior should be the exemplar to other employees. Based on the information she obtained from ChildNet employees, she concluded Mr. Parekh’s behavior was the worst example for ChildNet employees to replicate.” Smith-Torres has since left the agency.

Through his attorney, Jason Wandner of Miami Beach, Parekh, who no longer works at ChildNet, declined to discuss the investigations. Parekh, his lawyer said, “denies any impropriety in relation to the investigations, and looks forward to the matter being resolved in [his] favor.”

Kraft also declined to comment when contacted by a reporter.

Through a spokeswoman, ChildNet issued a statement on the three investigations. “We have stringent accredited employee policies and procedures in place. We do not condone any behavior or actions by staff that does not adhere to our strict guidelines. We perform thorough investigations of any allegations we receive,” the statement said. “Working closely with the Office of the Inspector General and DCF, we will review our policies and implement best practices for our staff to follow. We will take the proper actions as recommended by the state.”

The statement added: “As always, our mission is to protect abused, abandoned and neglected children in the communities we serve. Our devoted, passionate staff has dedicated their careers to improving the lives of these children and their families, and we all have always made protecting these children our highest priority.”

The largest of the three investigations mainly concerns Parekh, who held the dual titles of chief financial and chief operations officer until he left the agency in August 2013. The investigation appears to have taken more than two years to complete.

The resulting report includes a host of allegations from several of Parekh’s underlings: That he asked them to take his BMW to Jiffy Lube for oil changes, to go to the bank to make “numerous personal bank deposits,” to bring his car to “Bobby the mechanic” for repairs, to pick up his dry cleaning, and to deliver furniture to Parekh’s home, using a truck rented with the agency’s credit card — all usually on company time. Bitton said Parekh also had employees work at the homes of his family members.

Perhaps the strangest allegation involved Parekh’s belief that his ex-wife had planted a GPS device in his BMW to spy on him. Bitton told investigators that both he and Kraft had spent two hours taking the car apart looking for the device. The report said Bitton removed the car’s spare tire, door panels, both the front and back seats and searched under the car’s hood without finding any foreign technology.

One employee took a cellphone picture of three other workers changing the windshield wiper blades on Parekh’s car in the ChildNet parking lot, the report said. The incident became “an inside joke about how many ChildNet facilities employees were required to complete a simple task.”

During the course of the probe, a report said, some ChildNet employees alleged Parekh had maintained inappropriate relationships with women he supervised, assaulted one of them and behaved like a bully in front of workers. DCF declined to look into the claims, leaving the matter to ChildNet to handle itself.

In a separate investigation, the director of a children’s advocacy group, Florida’s Children First, complained that ChildNet employees allowed some children to sleep in cots or foldout couches in cubicles at an agency office building — an allegation agency administrators acknowledged. A report said the practice ceased in July 2013. ChildNet administrators denied the claim that nights at the building were not counted for DCF oversight purposes, and the inspector general concluded there was no evidence the claim was true.

And a third report concluded that Kraft had responded to close to 200 pages as a Plantation volunteer firefighter while on duty at ChildNet. When he was first interviewed, a report said, Kraft said he had worked for the fire department “a couple of times on lunch,” but otherwise only on his time. After the city’s records showed otherwise, Kraft “acknowledged that he had responded to many... pages,” the report said. “He denied any wrongdoing.”