Covenant House: Nihil Obstat

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No youth-serving agency in living memory has had such spectacular financial success or suffered as spectacular a scandal as New York-based Covenant House. Founded in 1972 by Franciscan Father Bruce Ritter, it stands today as a $120 million-a-year enterprise operating 15 programs in the United States, four in Latin America and two in Canada.

Ritter, who died in 1999, left a dual legacy: that of the hypocritical predatory ephebophile, and that of the fund-raising maestro and social welfare entrepreneur extraordinaire. His downfall in 1990-91 is well-documented in Broken Covenant, written by New York Post reporter Charles Sennott, who broke the story of the anti-porn crusader’s peccadilloes and financial shenanigans.
In 1997, Ritter’s successor, Sister Mary Rose McGready, thought that “the time has arrived to commission an honest agency history,” according to New York University professor Peter J. Wosh, who penned Covenant House: Journey of a Faith-Based Charity. Unfortunately, the resulting book reads more like some future tome on TYCO and its corporate bandito, Dennis Kozlowski, paid for by the new management.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Wosh’s faux history is whom he chose, or was allowed, to interview. Ritter’s inner circle – “Bruce’s Boys,” as they were known throughout the agency – get off with barely a limp slap on the wrist.

Consider the inexplicable case of Jim Harnett, who became chief operating officer in 1984 and remains in that $195,872-a-year position today. Wosh, in his author’s acknowledgements, confesses to being enamored of Harnett, saying he has “a remarkable eye for accuracy.” Wosh further writes that Harnett “possessed an early practical bent and a shrewd political sensibility” when hired by Ritter six years before Ritter’s demise.

Many, including former Covenant House staffers, have wondered just how the No. 2 man’s “eye for accuracy” could have been blind to the goings-on in an office where one of the on-the-job perks for many senior staff was trolling for teen sex partners. One former staffer recently described the office environment as “another Neverland.”

It’s hard to feel sorry for a charlatan such as Ritter, but Wosh seems anxious to blame every deficiency from 1972 to the present entirely on Ritter or his ghost. The agency’s problems, Wosh writes, “were largely confined to one individual.” That conveniently lulls the reader into easy answers and away from the culpability of Harnett and the rest of the living-high-on-the-hog management team. On-the-job evil cannot operate on the scale of Ritter’s Covenant House without a cortège of sycophantic enablers.

One of them was John Kells, a low-level staffer at a Houston TV station who encountered Ritter while the priest was visiting a Covenant House site in Texas. Then 26, Kells was quickly hired at a salary higher than Harnett’s and given a company car and an apartment overlooking the East River. Writes one former staffer in an e-mail, “John fell asleep at a lot of staff meetings and constantly had a running nose.” Harnett must have been sleeping, too. Kells, described by Wosh as “talented,” appears not to have been interviewed for the book.

One of Kells’ dishonest ideas, eagerly approved by Harnett, et al., and not reported by Wosh, was to send a fund-raising letter in the dead of winter to donors, saying Covenant House had so many kids to shelter that it had run out of mattresses. The expected outpouring of cash never arrived, but truckloads of donated and unneeded mattresses did.

Gone under McGready and her successor, Sister Patricia Cruise, are the soft porn photos of beautiful white pubescent boys and girls. The cover of the 2004 annual report is of an older black girl with crooked teeth.

Ritter, writes Wosh, was “unrelenting in his contempt for bureaucracy,” a fine sentiment in some circumstances, but one that also led to agency-wide waste, fraud and abuse. Those habits die hard, and the agency has yet to shake its reputation for doing too little with too much money.

One example is Covenant House’s Nineline, (800) 999-9999, a national crisis hotline that spent $2,318,256 in direct costs to operate in 2003, according to its federal tax returns. Several hotlines aimed at the same audience – runaway youth and their parents – already existed, most notably the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS), based in Chicago. Similar services are also offered by the likes of Girls and Boys Town in Nebraska, Childhelp USA in Arizona and statewide crisis lines in Texas and California.

But, Wosh writes, Ritter and Kells thought the Covenant House hotline would “provide the necessary communication infrastructure for a possible telemarketing system in the future.” Public relations considerations aside, one recently departed manager says that Nineline can claim “no contribution to making a better world.” Most calls are hang-ups, heavy breathers or chronic repeat callers.

Unlike cheaper and more successful crisis lines – such as NRS, where teens’ calls can be answered by near-peers – Nineline uses 36 paid adults. Most, says the former staffer, preach to the young callers. Conversations about birth control and referrals to groups like Planned Parenthood are forbidden, no matter what the circumstances.

The NRS, by comparison, operates on an annual budget of about $1.4 million. It has 18 staff and 150 volunteers, some as young as 16, and reports fielding 115,000 calls annually, compared with Nineline’s 50,000. Since 1975, the agency that is now the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau has funded the NRS operation through a competitive process in which NRS bested Nineline’s bid several times. Ninety percent of NRS’ income comes from the federal and Illinois state governments, according to its federal tax returns. Nineline’s cost per bona fide phone call is four times higher than that of NRS.

Wosh’s eagerness to pin the rap on Ritter is inadvertently highlighted in his writing about Casa Allianza, as Covenant House is known in Latin America. Bruce Harris, an Englishman and former member of the saccharine singing group Up With People, was hired in 1989. His praiseworthy advocacy on behalf of street children, who were often brutalized or even killed by the police in Guatemala, won him the coveted Order of the British Empire and a “human rights hero” award from Amnesty International.
Soon, however, Harris was claiming that Central American babies were being killed so their organs could be harvested for wealthy clients in the United States. Not a shred of evidence was ever turned up for this titillating, media-pleasing addition to the growing body of urban myths.

But in the gap between the book’s printing and its official debut, Harris, married with children, was arrested in Honduras in September 2004 for having sex with a 19-year-old male client. Harris was fired by headquarters. Bet this book won’t see a second printing and that Covenant House won’t refund the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize that Harris won for his program.

Many people have served Covenant House and its clients with distinction. Yet nowhere to be found in this book are bona fide masters of the youth advocacy craft, such as Kevin Ryan, New Jersey’s child advocate; Vince Gray, a Washington, D.C., city councilman; Anne Stanton, a program officer at California’s James Irvine Foundation; Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United; or Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, Vt. (and a Youth Today columnist).

The author didn’t even bother to locate Ned Loughran, a member of Covenant House’s first board of directors (one quickly squeezed out by Ritter). He went on to become the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. It’s hardly difficult to find him in his national position as executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.
Yet the book is intended to be an official history of the agency. Even I could write a better book in praise of Covenant House’s accomplishments than Wosh, though it would never win the Covenant House nihil obstat, or censor’s seal of approval.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this book deserves to be shelved in the library under “vanity press.” Some day, after paymaster Harnett is gone, someone will write an honest history of Covenant House. But it won’t be Professor Wosh.
Contact: Covenant House, (212) 727-4000,

The Pros and Con of a Fee-asco

Wanted: A charismatic black man who can give a spellbinder of a speech on African-American youth development issues of interest to teen and/or professional audiences. A compelling story of personal triumph over tragedy a plus. Fee negotiable, based on qualifications.

Numerous articulate black men compete for these speaking gigs, collecting fees that range from just travel expenses to as much as $70,000 per appearance earned by former America’s Promise Chairman Colin Powell before he became secretary of state. Fees for those who speak for a living are set by the marketplace, but academic training, work experience, the speaker’s race and selfless service on behalf of minority youth are definite fee-boosters for these freelancers.

That brings us to the strange case of Jah-Rel Muata Kiongozi, who lists his occupation as executive director of the National Training Institute for Youth and Justice in Hyattsville, Md.

Back when he was known by what the Nation of Islam would call his slave name, Jerel Eaglin, he worked at the National Crime Prevention Council – home of the dogged McGruff – and served briefly as its director of youth services. Kiongozi’s job at NCPC involved speaking to audiences around the nation about crime prevention, parental responsibility and youth issues. By all accounts, he was very good at the speaking part, not so hot in the business ethics or deportment departments.
Kiongozi does appear to have figured out “who needs the man,” or the middle man at least, and turned to paid speaking engagements to earn income.

But according to several truth-seeking stories by Joel Hood in the Modesto (California) Bee, when Kiongozi appeared as the featured speaker at Stanislaus County’s annual Resource and Adoptive Parent Appreciation dinner, he was, well, unbelievable. Jan Viss, assistant director of the county’s Community Service Agency, said of Kiongozi, “I recall thinking as he was talking that it was almost too good to be true.”

True enough.

According to biographical information Kiongozi submitted to the county to receive a $3,200 speaker’s fee, plus $800 to travel to California, he has a social work degree from Georgetown University (which has no social work school) and B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Howard University. Records show he attended Howard, but received no degree, according to the Bee.
Kiongozi’s two-hour speech, in which he described himself as both a psychologist and a psychiatrist, included claims to have turned around the lives of “nearly 3,000 gang members.” In his spare time, he claims to have adopted up to 25 children, eight of whom have earned doctorates.

Kiongozi is the team leader of Best Kids, a Washington-based group that bills itself as “mentoring America’s foster care youth.” The small nonprofit was founded in 2001 by Todd Leibbrand, a certified public accountant and, for 10 years, a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate.

After years of funding from “family and friends,” says Leibbrand, the group finally landed a $396,000 competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, through its Mentoring Programs discretionary grants.
One criterion the government uses to evaluate applications is the qualification of key staff. Team Leader Muata (meaning “he is about seeking the truth,” in Swahili) Kiongozi (“leader” in Swahili), LCSW, Ph.D., is prominent in Best Kids’ proposal. Knowingly providing false information in a grant proposal is a federal criminal offense.

When told by this reporter about the Modesto Bee story, Leibbrand was stunned. Kiongozi is “an incredible resource,” he plaintively offered. The now-reclusive Kiongozi called Leibbrand in mid-June to ask that his résumé be removed from Best Kids’ website, claiming that some sort of mix-up in his identity, caused by his name change, was causing problems.
Kiongozi is also reported to be a paid contractor with AmeriCorps. But at press time, no officials at AmeriCorps had responded to several media inquiries.

He remains an advisory board member of the youth anti-violence program Co/Motion, run by the Washington-based Alliance for Justice. Fellow advisory board member Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, director of the Youth Activism Project in Maryland, calls Kiongozi “a great youth worker” who “brought a lot of wisdom to the table.”

Now Kiongozi doesn’t call himself anything. Calls and e-mails from this reporter were not returned, nor has he spoken with the Bee. After a speech to the Department of Labor-funded Youth Opportunity (YO) program at the Metro Denver Black Church Institute, Kiongozi was praised in the institute’s newsletter as “exactly the type of African-American role model the Youth Opportunity program wants to expose the youth to.” Said 19-year-old YO participant Jerry Morgan, “He kept it real.”

Buyer Beware

Kiongozi has been a featured speaker at numerous events, including the Governor’s Safe Schools Summit in Oklahoma City last November, attended by thousands. He shared top billing with Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

While Trump barely knows Kiongozi, he does know all too well the problems of the fee-seeking hustlers of all races with phony credentials. Trump’s website,, offers guidance on booking speakers. Says Trump, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” His colleague in Cleveland, Stephen Sroka, president of Health Education Consultants, agrees, but adds that when it comes to setting fees, “perception is reality.”

Based on decades of experience, Sroka, winner of the Disney Health Teacher of the Year Award, says “there is no rhyme or reason” to how much a speaker is paid. Hundreds of sole practitioners are in the marketplace. For example, one company, Jostens Speakers Bureau, lists about 50 motivational speakers who are just raring to go. As for expertise, Trump says some speakers’ “only credential is attending a K-12 school.”

Sroka cautions that some powerful speakers can “make you laugh, make you cry and leave you wondering why” they were invited, because the audience learned nothing of practical value.

Kiongozi won’t have to wonder why his fee-earning days as a featured speaker are in eclipse. A speech sponsored by Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Services was scheduled for mid-June. After the Modesto Bee story appeared, Kiongozi “withdrew,” says the office’s chief, Laurel Marks.

Kiongozi’s unmasking raises the complex and sensitive issue of race relations within the youth field. One national leader who has hired Kiongozi to speak to a teen audience said “he was like the Pied Piper,” and goes on to say that the field is “desperate” for the role model that Kiongozi purported to be. In an e-mail, Trump, a 30-year school safety professional, writes, “I think that inflated credentials, smoke ’n’ mirrors, and other hype are as prevalent among white presenters, if not more so, than among individuals of other races.”

Given his natural talents and the law of supply and demand, a truthful résumé and honest speeches would have advanced Kiongozi’s career just as well. It’s because of what did and didn’t happen off the résumé that Kiongozi now couldn’t pass a simple background check to be a volunteer mentor.

Contact: The Modesto Bee (800) 776-4237, www.modbee.
com; Best Kids (202) 236-6006,; Stephen Sroka (216) 521-1766,; Jostens Speakers Bureau, (800) 541-4660,