Missing Kids’ Center Vanishes

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Tampa, Fla.—As tales of child abductions rivet the nation and prompt President Bush to convene a missing children’s conference next month, one of the country’s veteran missing kids activists sits helplessly here watching it all on television. Ivana DiNova’s Missing Children’s … HELP Center has gone bankrupt after 20 years, and lawyers are sifting through the wreckage to see if she was scammed out of business.

The soft-spoken, white-haired grandmother can’t explain how her nonprofit could raise more than $20 million in four years – more than seven times its annual budget – and collapse in debt.

The answer to that and other questions may lie in 60 boxes of files submitted for a bankruptcy case that is drawing attention from charity regulators in several states. Whether DiNova was duped or just didn’t pay attention, her story lifts a lid on the sometimes dubious side of missing kids fund-raising and on the methods of a national organization that has drawn scrutiny for how it raises money for child-related nonprofits.

The National Child Safety Council, a 47-year-old agency known for providing law enforcement with printed safety materials, ran the HELP Center’s finances and fund-raising for 14 years and appointed its board of directors. Among the results, according to court records and interviews:

• The NCSC raised $20 million on behalf of the HELP Center from 1997 to 2000, but about $9 million (44 percent) went to fund-raising costs and $4.9 million was donated back to the NCSC. Other money was donated to other nonprofits, including a wildlife organization.

• The man who initiated the deal with DiNova – NCSC founder H.R. Wilkinson – drew a $49,500 annual consulting fee from the center that DiNova didn’t know about.

• DiNova says she never met with the board, and it’s not clear if it ever convened in person. Says one former board member, “I never had to attend meetings.”

• Last year the board met for 20 minutes, resigned and appointed DiNova as the lone remaining member – leaving her with what eventually amounted to almost $300,000 in debts. (See sidebar.)

DiNova clearly missed warning signs, such as allegations in other states about improper fund-raising and misuse of charitable funds involving NCSC and Wilkinson.

“I don’t compute well when there [are] bad things going on,” says the 60-year-old DiNova.

The fall of her nonprofit shows just how badly things can go.

Cake and Candles

Like many missing children’s advocates, DiNova was thrust into the field by personal tragedy: 26 years ago her 12-year-old niece, Dee Scofield, disappeared in Florida. She was never found. After operating the Dee Scofield Awareness Fund for six years with the help of relatives, DiNova gathered enough financial support to pull together a larger, better-trained staff under the name Missing Children’s … HELP Center.

It incorporated in 1982, about the time that DiNova and other missing children’s advocates helped to pass the federal Missing Children’s Act, which they hoped would bring significantly more money to their organizations.

DiNova ran a no-frills program: seven staffers working weekends and nights to track cases, man a hotline and produce publications for distribution to law enforcement agencies and at truck stops. (DiNova’s husband, Tony, used to be a trucker.) As was common with local missing kids’ groups around the country, the founder wasn’t even on the payroll for three years. The center got money wherever it could: fund-raising events with pro football cheerleaders and donations from the Tampa Tribune, the Home Shopping Network and law enforcement (using money confiscated in drug busts).

With its $250,000 budget, the center built a solid reputation. In 1983, ABC’s “Good Morning America” began running pictures of missing children every week, drawing photos and information from the HELP Center.

The center’s good name reached Jackson, Mich., home of the NCSC. In 1987, DiNova got a call from NCSC founder and director Wilkinson about joining forces to help missing children. Started in 1955, the NCSC had built a good reputation of its own for producing high-quality child safety awareness products, like publications about substance abuse and missing kids.

(H.R. Wilkinson did not respond to several phone calls and a letter asking for an interview. Also not responding to interview requests were his son, K.C. Wilkinson, and former center board members Robert Hinton and Jerry Taylor.)

DiNova had heard rumblings that the council wanted to create a missing children’s conglomerate to rival the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which had become the subject of considerable resentment among smaller, older groups.

“We all worked our fannies off to get the national center up and running,” says June Vlasaty, who ran one of those groups, the Society for Young Victims. But after passage of the Missing Children’s Assistance Act of 1984, the Reagan administration sent essentially all the money to the new National Center, leaving the small organizations as cash-starved as ever.

The NCSC tapped into their frustration, contacting not only DiNova but Vlasaty, Georgia Hilgeman of the Vanished Children’s Alliance and Kathy Rosenthal of Children’s Rights of America. The first three visited NCSC in Jackson. (Rosenthal could not be reached for comment.)

The operation “was very impressive,” DiNova recalls. “There were a lot of people” in the offices, “and you could smell the ink because they do all their own printing back there.” The NCSC was developing Safety Pup (a contemporary to the National Crime Prevention Council’s McGruff the Crime Dog), and DiNova was wowed by the staff’s artistry.

Wilkinson’s pitch: The four groups would form the National Association of Missing Children’s Organizations (NAMCO), the missing children’s arm of the NCSC.

“All of us were struggling and he [Wilkinson] seemed to have the finances,” Vlasaty says. “He was gonna keep us all afloat.”
When the group was launched, she says, “there was a big cake and candles and a celebration.”

But things fell apart at one of the first NAMCO meetings, in Chicago, when Wilkinson walked into the room and, Hilgeman and Vlasaty recall, started telling the women what their group should do. Hilgeman says that when she told Wilkinson that he’d have to get himself on the agenda for the next meeting, he exploded.

“It was not a very fun meeting,” DiNova recalls. “He was upset with everybody. I can’t really begin to tell you what he was upset about.”

The women went home. “We had our own organizations to take care of,” DiNova says.

But Wilkinson did not give up on the idea of taking a national missing kids’ group under his wing.

Unheeded Warning
At some point in the next few months, Hilgeman recalls, Wilkinson showed up at her San Jose-area office unannounced and “demanding.” She says she can’t even recall what he said; she got him out quickly.

Wilkinson took a more tactful approach with DiNova, calling her first. Then he and NCSC executive Tony Horton came to Tampa, took DiNova out for her birthday, and told her they wanted her center to be the missing children division of their safety council.
The partnership seemed like a sweet deal for DiNova’s little nonprofit: The NCSC took control of the center’s fund-raising and financial administration, leaving DiNova and her staff to focus on programming.

It is unclear how the division of money and authority was spelled out; DiNova’s paperwork sits in boxes in the offices of an attorney for the bankruptcy trustee.

The NCSC asked for one thing that DiNova found strange: that she dissolve her board of directors and let the council name the board members.

Hilgeman says she warned DiNova against surrendering her board to the council. “Ivana just felt like she was in dire need of funds,” Hilgeman says. After some deliberation, says DiNova, her board “was under one mind that merging with an organization as big as NCSC would be a good move for the organization.” She says her board members resigned around 1987.

Wilkinson became president of the new board, which over the following years was composed largely of attorneys and people who worked for the NCSC. Former board member Judith Ordway, an NCSC employee, says she “never had to attend any meetings.”

The HELP Center had become one of several nonprofits that appear to be overseen by or tied to the NCSC, with their boards of directors composed largely of people who work for or represent the council. Some of those people serve on several of the boards: Ordway was also on the board of nonprofits called the United Children’s Fund (UCF), the Kentucky Child Safety Council, Kids Missing in America and the National Drug and Safety League. Many of the NCSC-related nonprofits listed addresses at
the Webster, Chamberlain and Bean law firm in Washington, where most recent UCF President Alan Dye practices.

DiNova also served as UCF president at the behest of Wilkinson, who told her, she says, that the group would raise the money for her center. She says her duties amounted to little more than signing tax returns and licenses to solicit money. Within a year she was asked to resign.

If any of this puzzled DiNova, she didn’t ask a lot of questions. She continued raising $200,000 a year locally, and with the NCSC covering her administrative costs, her operating budget just about doubled, to $500,000. Each year, she says, the NCSC share of her funding – coming from direct marketing, street-level solicitation and bingo – grew by about $50,000.

She no longer had to worry about administrative tasks like payroll or expanding fund-raising beyond what she felt like doing locally. She could concentrate more on her agency’s mission.

The first hint of trouble came in 1993.

Under Investigation
After a five-month investigation, the Detroit Free Press published a series of stories about Wilkinson and his operations, alleging numerous instances of family members profiting from the NCSC’s charitable work. One example: The paper said Wilkinson’s personal Cadillac was bought with council funds.

Soon thereafter Wilkinson resigned as NCSC director and became a consultant to the council. His son, K.C., became director.
(DiNova’s attorney, Michael McDermott, recently discovered that the elder Wilkinson also drew an annual consulting salary of $49,500 from the HELP Center. That fee did not appear on the center’s tax returns; Internal Revenue Service Form 990 requires listing employees and contractors who were paid more than $50,000.)

“When I read that [Free-Press] story, I didn’t know whether everything was true or not,” DiNova says. No one claimed anything improper about funding for her center; she ignored the controversy.

There was more going on that she didn’t know:

A New York state attorney general investigation of UCF, begun in 1998, found that the group claimed to give 50 percent of the money it raised to charities, when it actually gave just 4 percent. Dye disputes that finding. The UCF was banned from operating in New York.

In Tennessee, the Nashville Better Business Bureau investigated another NCSC-related organization, the American Children’s Safety Source (ACSS), which raised money for missing kids’ groups, including the HELP Center. Following up on an advertisement offering $50,000 a year to help find missing children, the bureau sent an employee to apply for a job and solicit with ACSS for a few days.

The employee’s report said the fund-raisers approached people on the street with goodies like t-shirts and Safety Pup puppets, saying their organizations had found 6,000 missing kids.

The bureau issued an alert about the ACSS in February 2000. Among the activities BBB was concerned about: People in the Clarksville, Tenn., area reported that ACSS solicitors took credit for finding a local girl, Lucy Meadows, who is still missing to this day.

Soon DiNova got a call from Chris Hansen, a former Tampa TV reporter who’d befriended her before moving on to NBC’s “Dateline.” The program was looking into the fund-raising that the UCF and ACSS did on behalf of groups like the HELP Center.

When Hansen sat down with DiNova in her office, he showed her undercover tapes that “Dateline” had made of UCF workers raising money on the streets of New York City. The fund-raisers made some dramatic but untrue claims, such as saying their organization had helped bring back six kids who had been taken to Guatemala.

In the segment that aired in July 2001, DiNova appears on camera watching the footage on a TV shaking her head. She says she had no idea that such claims were being made on behalf of her center.

Also appearing was Robert Hinton, a Texas lawyer serving as president of the center’s board. He said the workers had not been trained properly and that the exaggerations would stop.

But in June of 2001, weeks before the story aired, the entire board of the HELP Center resigned. The reins of the center were turned back over to DiNova.

“I kind of rejoiced,” she says. “I thought, we’ll be back on our own, and that’s gonna be fine.”

Shutting Down
The bills began to come that October.

Some were forwarded from the council. Some were accompanied by calls threatening legal action.

Much of the debt came from fund-raising offices that had been opened in the HELP Center’s name in at least 10 states during the time that the UCF and ACSS were facing media scrutiny. The bills were for rent, newspaper advertising, phone service and legal fees, all of which DiNova said she hadn’t known about.

All in all, the HELP Center owed $288,974 on 141 claims.

DiNova struggled on for nearly a year, trying to pay some of the debts. She says she talked to Wilkinson about the situation, and that he told her, “What we’re doing may be unethical, but it’s not illegal.” She says he offered to help the agency get back on its feet with new bingo operations he was trying to establish in New York and New Jersey. DiNova declined.

In May she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Florida. She says she hopes that turning her financial documents over to the court
will help her show what really happened.

Now lawyers and investigators in several states are looking into whether legal action should be been taken against the NCSC, its affiliates or its officers, according to several people close to the case.

“There’s certainly going to be some [civil] litigation out of this,” says Andrew McNamee, a Florida lawyer handling the HELP Center bankruptcy case for court trustee Susan Woodard. “We just haven’t identified who.”

The bankruptcy petition includes a “potential cause of action against H.R. Wilkinson and/or related entities.”

McNamee says some recent financial transfers involving the center may fall under federal and state fraudulent transfer statutes that prohibit organizations from making transfers with knowledge that they cannot pay their debts.

Scott Jones, general counsel for the Kentucky secretary of state’s Department of Charitable Gaming, says officials in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are investigating what he says are commonly referred to as the “Michigan groups” that are tied to the NCSC.

Jones’ office has reprimanded five NCSC-related organizations – the UCF, Kentucky Child Safety Council, National Drug and Safety League, Kids Missing in America and American Children’s Fund – for failing to use more than 40 percent of their adjusted gross from bingo for charitable purposes. Facing a one-year suspension of their gaming license, the groups are scheduled for hearings in late September.

“I don’t think we’ll lose our license,” Dye says.

McDermott, DiNova’s attorney, says officials from three states have asked him for information regarding the fund-raising practices of the HELP Center. McNamee says he has had conversations with officials at several state attorney general offices about looking into the case.

Meanwhile, DiNova’s son, Vince, and a few HELP Center staff have started Child Protection Education of America in the suite next to the old center offices. Its mission is similar to the HELP Center’s: Track cases nationally and distribute safety tips locally.

He says the organization will do its own fund-raising.

John Kelly can be reached atmailto:jkelly@youthtoday.org.

Ivana DiNova
c/o Michael McDermott
791 W. Lumsden Road
Brandon, FL 33511
(813) 684-3131

National Child Safety Council
4065 Page Ave.
Jackson, MI 49204
(517) 764-6070

20 Fatal Minutes
With Ivana DiNova unaware that her HELP Center’s board of directors was even meeting, the board took a series of votes one afternoon that left her the sole leader of an organization hurtling toward financial collapse.

The minutes from the board meeting, conducted by teleconference on June 28, 2001, show that the board did the following in 20 minutes:

• Rejected an offer from American Children’s Safety Source (ACSS), a fund-raising group, to let the HELP Center use some of its space for free. Robert Hinton, who served as board president for both ACSS and the HELP Center, said the offer might put ACSS in financial difficulty. The HELP Center board decided to pay ACSS for the space.

• “Affirmed” five recent donations by the center totaling $25,401 – including $5,000 to the ACSS, which like two of the other recipients, had ties to the National Child Safety Council (NCSC). The other two donations totaled $401.

• Approved an additional $25,000 donation from the HELP Center to the ACSS.

• Canceled a $71,633 debt that the ACSS owed to the HELP Center.

• Agreed to “immediately” pay NCSC founder H.R. Wilkinson $24,700 – the amount left on his $49,500 annual consultant’s fee from the HELP Center for the rest of the fiscal year.

• Approved the transfer of HELP Center “community service” offices to a new for-profit corporation operated by John Carty
and David Wrobel, owners of Good Cause Marketing, who each earned $158,000 as managers for the HELP Center in 2000.

The board also approved payment for claims that might be made by Carty and Wrobel for past services to the HELP Center.

Then came the resignations.

Hinton announced early in the meeting that board members William P. Cunningham and Rosemary Smith had resigned over the previous two days. Now, near the end of the meeting, the board approved Hinton’s request to install DiNova on the board.

Then, “with a heavy heart,” Hinton said he would step down as president of the board.

He nominated DiNova to take his place. Everyone agreed.

Then they all resigned from the board: Allison Strathdee, Jerry Taylor, Judith Ordway and Hinton.

H.R. Wilkinson, who was in on the teleconference, thanked Hinton “for his tireless efforts on behalf [of] the missing children and recognized him for his outstanding service.”