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CAS managers charged more than $106,000 in 'unreasonable’ expenses

Colette Prevost, who now heads the York Region Children’s Aid Society, charged $99,000 of those expenses, during her time at the Sudbury Children’s Aid Society.
Nov. 10, 2016
By Sandro Contenta

Senior managers at the Sudbury children’s aid society charged more than $106,000 of “unreasonable” expenses over a two-year-period, with most coming from the former executive director, a government-ordered audit has found.

Colette Prevost, who now heads the York Region Children’s Aid Society, charged $99,000 of those “unreasonable” expenses, which amounted to almost half of the total expenses audited by Deloitte LLP.

The audit of senior manager expenses describes accounting and spending problems throughout the Sudbury society.

From April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2015, the society was not addressing, or complying with, 21 mandatory provincial government directives that govern how records are kept, expenses are approved and contracts awarded.

Record keeping was so bad that auditors couldn’t rule on an additional $290,000 worth of expenses on corporate cards, partly because they could not figure out which senior manager charged them.

That suggests the problems could go deeper than those found in the $203,400 worth of expenses they were able to review.

The audit also found more than $240,000 worth of contracts awarded in ways that violated minimum procurement policies, including failure to seek multiple quotes.

In a statement, the Children’s Aid Society of the Districts of Sudbury and Manitoulin said it has launched a forensic audit to “identify all the expenses that can be recovered” from Prevost.

In response to a request for comment from The Star, Prevost, who has not seen the report, said,“I do not take this lightly. I worked very diligently for Sudbury CAS. Sudbury CAS and I agreed late last year to reimbursement of expenses that were viewed as potentially outside agency policy.”

The York society’s chair, Barb Gray, said in an email that Prevost “is on a personal leave of absence.”

Gray added that a recent financial audit of York CAS found “strong compliance” to government accountability requirements.

A redacted version of the Sudbury audit was released to the Star by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services Wednesday. The Star was later able to obtain the unedited report.

The audit is further evidence of what recent reports have criticized as a lack of oversight of Ontario’s 47 privately run children’s aid societies by the ministry.

An ongoing investigation by the Star, and the independent reviews it sparked, have revealed an unaccountable and muddled child protection system where the government loses track of abused or at-risk children taken into care, has no minimum qualifications for group home caregivers and allows a growing number of kids “with complex special needs” to be placed in unlicensed programs.

The ministry, which last year gave societies $1.5 billion in funding, has indicated it plans to tighten its control of the child protection system, partly by giving itself the power to appoint directors on society boards.

An average of 15,625 abused or at risk children were in foster or group home care in 2015.

“Funds provided to children’s aid societies are to be used for the protection of children and their wellbeing, and to support families who need assistance with safely raising their children,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It is simply unacceptable for these funds to be used inappropriately,” it added.

The ministry notes it has already taken steps to improve accountability, including the signing of “accountability agreements” with societies and directing all executive staff to post their travel expenses on their websites.

Children’s minister Michael Coteau has further promised “substantial reform,” including legislative changes to better protect children.

The Sudbury agency said it has “put in place much stricter financial controls” since the audit.

The audit was ordered after Ontario’s Auditor General last year accused Prevost of “excessive and questionable spending,” including a $90,000 hotel bill in Toronto during a two-year period. Bonnie Lysyk didn’t name Prevost in her report, but Prevost confirmed to the Star she was the official being criticized.

The Deloitte audit concludes that almost $4,000 of expenses Prevost charged during the review period were not related to her job. Auditors couldn’t figure out if $122,318 she charged was business related, due to a lack of proper documentation.

Auditors defined unreasonable expenses, including the $99,133 attributed to Prevost, as including hotel rooms at more than $200 a night, meals more than $50, and taxi costs of more than $100.

In an email exchange with the Star last December, after the Auditor General’s report criticized her expenses, Prevost promised to reimburse some of the expenses, but noted that all of the expenses she charged were approved by the society’s board of directors.

“Those expenses that were outside of the Sudbury CAS’s policies I have taken responsibility for and I am reimbursing.”

The Deloitte audit, completed in May, notes that by then Prevost had repaid a total of $5,896, including $2,591 in expenses not related to her job.

A trained social worker, Prevost has spent 30 years working in the social services and mental health sectors. She worked at the Sudbury society from 2008 to early 2015 and managed $36.2 million in provincial funding in the 2014-15 fiscal year. The society completed 1,875 abuse and neglect investigations that year and had an average of 446 children in the care of foster parents or group homes.

She was earning $154,377 a year when the Ontario auditor general began auditing children’s aid societies from November 2014 to June 2015. She became CEO of the York Region Children’s Aid Society in April 2015.