News Briefs for May 2003

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Suit Says Fraud Killed Missing Kids’ Center

A year after a Florida missing children’s organization filed for bankruptcy after 20 years of operation, the trustee for the Florida bankruptcy court is suing its parent organization for nearly $8 million.

Lawyers for the trustee of the Missing Children’s … HELP Center filed a complaint last month that accuses the National Child Safety Council (NCSC), a nonprofit based in Jackson, Mich., of defrauding its affiliate while controlling the center’s finances.

“We filed the complaint for the benefit of creditors,” said Andrew McNamee, an attorney representing trustee Susan Woodard.

The NCSC did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Among the accusations in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa, Fla.:

• NCSC illegally transferred $7.5 million from the center’s bank accounts. The suit says most of the money was transferred to other nonprofits also under NCSC control. Many of those nonprofits shared similar purposes and had board members in common, who were themselves linked to NCSC. Some of the money, say lawyers in the case, went to pay salaries for NCSC executives.

• NCSC founder and former President Howard Wilkinson directed rent payments from the center and the other nonprofits to a bingo hall he owned in Louisville, Ky. The cumulative rent paid by the groups ($1.61 million from 1998 to 2000) was 1,000 percent over the fair market value. (“Bingo Jackpot,” October 2002.)

• Wilkinson used money transferred from the center to accumulate land surrounding his lakefront property in Jackson County, Mich. The stated purpose of the land purchase was to protect white-tailed deer and Canada geese, neither of which are endangered in the area.

The HELP Center was founded by Executive Director Ivana DiNova in 1982 to help law enforcement and parents of abducted children by tracking cases and manning a national hotline.

DiNova readily accepted when Wilkinson, the founder and then-president of the NCSC, offered to make her center a division of his organization. The agreement allowed DiNova to handle day-to-day operations at her Tampa headquarters, while NCSC took control of the center’s board, bookkeeping and fund raising.

The partnership lasted from 1987 until 2000, when the board of directors for the center abruptly resigned and turned control of the organization back to DiNova. She inherited around $300,000 in debts amassed while NCSC controlled the purse strings. (“Missing Kids’ Center Vanishes,” September 2002.)

The lawsuit claims that Wilkinson and NCSC amassed a network of nonprofits under its control and transferred money from accounts that his group opened for the HELP Center into the accounts of the other organizations.

The complaint also accuses attorney Alan Dye, who represented the HELP Center, and his Washington-based firm, Webster, Chamberlain and Bean, of professional malpractice. Dye’s failure to notify DiNova of inappropriate transfers to the other nonprofits, many of which he also represented, “was the primary cause of damages” to the center, the suit says.

Dye did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Contact: NCSC (517) 764-6070.

Weighing Solutions To Youth Obesity

As scientific evidence mounts that more American children are overweight and face serious health problems because of it, youth service providers are trying to figure out how to combat the problem.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is seeking answers through its new Childhood Obesity Team, which is examining research on the issue and plans to test best-practice models in communities around the country – an exercise that could cost more than $100 million. America’s Promise convened a task force in November to explore strategies for prevention and treatment of child obesity. And Congress is considering changes in several youth and family food programs to improve nutrition and increase exercise for young people.

In 1999 and 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 15 percent of Americans between ages 6 and 19 – or 9 million young people – were overweight, three times the percentage in 1990.

A spate of recent studies shows how obesity is affecting youth. A report in the April 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) said the health-related quality of life for overweight children is similar to that of youth undergoing chemotherapy.

Overweight children also tend to miss school more often than their normal-weight peers and often suffer from health conditions normally associated with aging adults, including diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, fatty liver disease and obstructive sleep apnea, according to the article, “Health-Related Quality of Life of Severely Obese Children and Adolescents.”
Obese youth face mental health risks as well, researchers said. They are often teased and are prone to low self-esteem and depression.

Such findings are one reason that that RWJF convened a study group about a year ago to address a broad range of obesity issues, starting with childhood. The Princeton, N.J.-based foundation plans to spend the next 18 months on “terrain mapping,” to determine what is known about effective models to prevent and reduce childhood obesity, and to determine which areas need more research, said senior program officer Terry Bazzarre. Bazzarre previously served as a senior nutrition scientist at the American Heart Association and is a member of the foundation’s Childhood Obesity Team.

The team will look at nutrition programs, health care providers and after-school activities, among other areas. It then plans to develop a “blueprint for action,” to determine barriers to healthy eating and to propose solutions, Bazzarre said. The blueprint will probably be similar to the foundation’s Active Living program, which focuses primarily on Americans age 50 and older.

“We hope we would be developing some models we can test in communities” by early 2005, Bazzarre said. Program testing is expected to last through 2008, when the obesity team would begin rolling out programs nationally.

It won’t be cheap. “We certainly could see an investment that exceeds $100 million,” Bazzarre said. The foundation hopes to raise at least that much from sources that would include the federal government.

On the federal side, Congress is expected this year to reauthorize school breakfast and lunch programs; the Women, Infants and Children program; and the Summer Food Service program. Nutrition advocates are using the reauthorization process to urge Congress to increase financial support for the programs, to strengthen the nutrition components and to link the programs to physical activities in and out of school.

Making school meals healthier would help low-income youths who receive free or reduced meals, and who are more likely to be overweight. According to Healthy People 2010, a federally sponsored national health agenda, the proportion of adolescents from poor households who are overweight is twice the rate of those from middle- and high-income families.

The America’s Promise Childhood Obesity Task Force, led in partnership with the VHA Health Foundation of Irving, Texas, cited school nutrition and fitness programs as prime opportunities to address obesity, noting that when given a choice of foods at school, children often select junk snacks and sodas. The task force is still being developed.

Contact: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (888) 631-9989,; Kay Rollins, America’s Promise, (703) 684-4500,

Mistrial in Juvenile Official’s Abuse Case

A former Kentucky juvenile justice official’s trial on sex abuse charges ended in a mistrial last month, but he can’t get his job back.

“I absolutely plan to keep fighting this,” Ralph Kelly, Kentucky’s former juvenile justice commissioner, told The Associated Press.

Kelly, 65, had been charged with the misdemeanors of sex abuse and forcible touching, both involving a 21-year-old bartender who was an acquaintance of a family friend. The friend and the bartender had accompanied Kelly on a trip to New York City in September.

In testimony at the New York trial, the bartender described the alleged abuse while Kelly took the stand to deny it. The testimony also revealed that the three shared a marijuana cigarette. Kelly said he touched the joint to his lips but did not inhale.
The charges had prompted the state of Kentucky to dismiss Kelly from his post. (“Sex Charges Cost Reformer His Job,” Nov.
2002.) Kelly appealed to the Kentucky Personnel Board, whose rejection prompted him to say he is less interested in getting his job back than in “clearing my name.”

Facing Hard Choices, Teens Turn to Religion

Two studies released last month found that teens who are religious tend to consider their beliefs when making decisions about substance abuse and sex.

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) study tracking 1,182 adolescents from seventh to 10th grades, there is an inverse relationship between importance of religion in teens’ lives and the decision to use drugs or alcohol.
The results come as no surprise to researchers who track youth and religion.

“We’ve done our own analysis, and religiosity is correlated with lower levels of substance abuse,” said Christian Smith, principal investigator at the National Study of Youth and Religion, whose organization released a review of research on youth religiosity last month. (See Report Roundup, pg. 36.) Smith also says that religious teens tend to have larger networks of concerned and active adults around them.

In the APA study, the relationship between religiosity and abstinence from drugs was particularly strong among youth who said they were facing multiple “life stressors.” The most common stressors included breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, arguing frequently with parents or the death of a loved one.

“It’s sometimes thought that religiosity was characteristic of one ethnic or gender group, but we didn’t find that,” said study author Thomas Ashby Willis. “We found comparable effects for all groups.”

A second study, a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) analysis of data from the federally funded Add Health Survey, found that religion reduces the likelihood of adolescents engaging in sex at a young age. The study looked at 4,948 teens (15 to 18 years old) who were virgins when they first responded to the survey.

Contact: APA (718) 430-3654; NICHD

Youth Service Day Draws Millions

An estimated 3 million youths participated in National Youth Service Day last month, focusing on a range of issues such as literacy, hunger, homeland security, neighborhood clean-ups and civic participation.

Local organizers, community groups and schools – such as Volunteer San Diego and Hands on Miami – arranged projects in hopes of mobilizing youth to identify and address community needs and to take more interest in community service.

Now in its 15th year, the $500,000 event is run by Youth Service of America (YSA) in partnership with the National Youth Leadership Council and PARADE magazine. YSA helps local groups by providing funding for items such as transportation and supplies.

The “day” this year actually ran from April 11 to 13 and involved youth from preschool through college. Their activities included creating hygiene kits for homeless people, cleaning rivers, making blankets for sick children and planting flowers in front of schools.

Contact: YSA (202) 296-2922,

Briefly …

Another Juvenile Executed: Scott Hain, convicted of killing two people when he was 17, was executed last month after the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to overturn a stay of execution. Hain, of Oklahoma, had won the stay in an appeals court, but the state asked the Supreme Court to intervene, arguing that his appeals had run out. Hain and an accomplice had abducted their victims, robbed them, locked them in the trunk of a car and set it on fire.

Single Parent Adoptions: About one-third of the 50,000 children adopted in the United States in 2001 went to single women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Two-parent homes are still preferred for adoptions, but studies show they aren’t critical to raising healthy children. About 20 million American children live with single parents; only 1 million of them live with single fathers.

More Time for Abuse Charges: California Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed a law last month giving prosecutors more time to gather evidence and file charges against suspects in child molestation cases. The law was passed to prevent 18 potential sexual abuse cases involving the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles from expiring in June.

Welfare Drug Tests Nixed: A federal appeals court in Cincinnati struck down a Michigan law in April that requires drug testing for parents who apply for or receive welfare benefits. The law took effect in 1999 but was blocked by a federal judge’s ruling that the tests were unconstitutional.

Homeless Student Guidelines: A new U.S. Department of Education guideline specifies how states and school districts must address the needs of homeless students. The rules fall under the No Child Left Behind Act, and address issues such as maintaining enrollment records, providing transportation and monitoring student progress. Contact:

Hospital Occupancy Rate Up: The occupancy rates for child psychiatric programs increased 8 percent between 2000 and 2001, while adolescent programs’ occupancy rose by 6.5 percent, according to a survey by the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems, based in Washington. Occupancy in residential programs was at 93.5 percent.