Judy Rubin and Bobbi Douglas were feeling pretty confident in early September.
Both run agencies that have won federal Drug-Free Communities (DFC) grants, which help more than 700 community coalitions combat adolescent drug abuse. Rubin’s Tri-Community Coalition in Michigan was a new grantee in 2004, and federal officials told her that her second-year application was little more than a formality. Douglas’ award-winning CIRCLE Coalition in Wooster, Ohio, was coming off a successful five-year grant and expected another.
But this fall, confidence was replaced by confusion for Douglas, Rubin and about 60 other grantees who found themselves abruptly dropped from DFC funding.
Service providers and advocates say a bungled administrative turnover within the grant program caused the unexpected turn of events. The controversy has prompted protests by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), of which many grantees are members, and several members of Congress.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has overseen the program since its inception in 1997, declined several requests to comment for this story.
DFC grants provide community coalitions with up to $100,000 a year to mobilize local efforts to prevent drug use among youth. Congress extended DFC in 2001, authorizing a total of $399 million through fiscal 2007.
ONDCP Director John Walters announced in 2004 that administration of the grants would shift from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), within the Department of Justice, to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Some grantees were glad to leave the Justice Department behind. “There was a lot of staff turnover at OJJDP,” says Carrie Garnett, executive director of One Voice for Volusia in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I had five different program officers in one year.”
But the transition was hardly smooth for SAMHSA. Because Congress passed the 2005 appropriation for ONDCP well after the fiscal year started on Oct. 1, 2004, SAMHSA got a late start on administering the program.
“You could tell things were just not going right,” says Rubin, who attended one of SAMHSA’s first “boot camps” on DFC administration in November 2004. “They didn’t know all the answers to grantees’ questions. Project officers were in a flux, deferring to somebody else.”
Tri-Community got its first allotment of money for its fiscal 2004 grant on Dec. 1, 2004, Rubin says. Its first quarterly report was due two weeks later.
Then the real trouble started.
‘Can’t Get an Answer’
For fiscal 2005, the criteria for qualified grantees changed. Most notably, grantees can use only 20 percent of their DFC funding on “direct service” activities, defined as “where the primary focus of the intervention is on providing a distinct and ongoing service or activity for a specific individual or group of individuals.”
The rest must go to “indirect services” such as staff conferences, brokering between community systems and facilitating meetings or one-time events, according to a supplement to the grant application.
While Rubin was not worried about getting her second year of funding – “We were told ‘this is just an exercise; your funding is in place,’ ” she says – the direct service caveat on this year’s request for applications caught her attention. Tri-Community uses part of its DFC money to run an after-school program, which is sorely needed by the low-income and at-risk youth in suburban
Detroit’s Oakland County. Rubin needed to find out whether she could keep using DFC money for that effort.
“We were told by our program officer that the [after-school program’s] life skills curriculum was direct service, but the whole thing [program] was not,” she says. “I said, great!” because life skills is only “about 20 percent of the program.”
On the application, Rubin reported that Tri-Community was trying to move DFC funding away from its after-school program and toward more obviously indirect activities. She even secured a grant from another source for the life skills curriculum and training to demonstrate that effort.
This fall, DFC named 716 grantees out of an estimated 1,100 applicants for fiscal 2005. There were 176 new grantees, compared with 227 in fiscal 2004, according to ONDCP.
“I don’t even think we got into the peer review,” Rubin says. “I can’t get an answer” about why the application was denied. “No peer review scores; nobody will answer anything.”
Newcomers aren’t the only ones complaining.
Douglas, who manages Ohio’s CIRCLE Coalition in her capacity as executive director for the nonprofit Steps at Liberty Center, can’t find out where her coalition went wrong. The coalition got its first DFC grant in 2000, but was turned down this year without explanation.
She has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to get information on CIRCLE’s peer review scores, and made inquiries through U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio).
It wasn’t as if CIRCLE had been on the brink of failure. In 2004, CIRCLE was held in high enough regard to receive an additional $40,000 coalition mentoring grant from the DFC to help nearby communities establish or expand other substance abuse prevention coalitions. In 2005, CIRCLE was one of two programs honored with CADCA’s Got Outcomes! Coalition of the Year awards.
Douglas says CIRCLE’s focus has been on eighth-graders. CIRCLE has helped fund an after-school center, publishes a directory of parents who have pledged to ban alcohol consumption in their homes and conducts alcohol vendor training.
“There’s a piece of this that we must not be understanding,” Douglas says of the SAMHSA reviews. One problem, she says, is that “direct service” is a vague term. “Is website development direct service, or coalition activity? I don’t know.”
Not everyone knocks the process.
“When they released the RFA [request for applications], it was obvious there were changes,” says Garnett, whose One Voice for Volusia received continued funding. “The format was different, questions were different. After going to a training, I knew whatthe expectations were.”
In Garnett’s eyes, the shift from direct service was overdue. “The idea of the coalition is, you’re being a catalyst for environmental changes, not doing direct service,” she says.
In the first years of DFC, she says, “some grants went to treatment centers. … It was obvious that they were doing counseling, … which is not what the money is for.”
The Rivella Island Prevention Coalition (RIPC) in Ketchikan, Alaska, seems to illustrate Garnett’s point. According to Karen Eakes, who oversees RIPC as executive director of nonprofit Patchworks, the coalition’s DFC money has paid for activities such as an Easter egg hunt at a mall, a program for high school students interested in social work and teaching careers, and salaries for Patchwork staff and the coordinator of Ketchikan’s youth court.
RIPC was denied more funding this year after completing a five-year DFC grant.Protests
CADCA jumped on the Bush administration for the grant cutoffs. CEO Arthur Dean urged his member agencies to e-mail the White House and ONDCP.
“There are provisions in the grant which allow for probationary status when problems arise, and yet these coalitions were not notified of any wrongdoing prior to being de-funded,” Dean wrote in a September legislative alert on an ONDCP listserv. “We believe that this process was designed to de-fund programs so that new grants could be awarded.”
ONDCP Deputy Director Mary Ann Solberg, whose prior job was running a coalition in Oakland County, Mich., responded on the listserv, saying no applicant was rejected because of the 20 percent direct service clause. “Those found to be compliant with the eligibility criteria, but placed on high-risk status due to violating the 20 percent policy, have been given 30 days to submit a permissible budget,” Solberg’s Sept. 23 posting said.
CADCA’s appeals were echoed by the co-chairmen of the Congressional Drug Caucus – Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) – who wrote letters to Walters at ONDCP and to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “There were repeated assurances to Capitol Hill that this would be a seamless transition,” Grassley wrote to Walters. “Instead, the transfer was wrought with confusion.”
The letter requests 15 pieces of information from ONDCP, including peer review scores for all applicants and the criteria used by the reviewers.
The former grantees must find stop-gap funding and hope for better luck next year. Douglas of CIRCLE says she needs at least $50,000 to avoid layoffs. In Michigan, Rubin notified parents that the after-school program will start charging fees in January.