Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas shuts program after media catches them neglecting refugees
Posted by Christopher Coen on February 24, 2010
Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas (affiliate of LIRS), featured in a series of local newspaper articles about their neglect of refugees, has closed its doors to further refugee resettlement (here). Current refugee clients will be transitioned to other local resettlement agencies over the next four months.
Lutheran Family Services of the Carolinas halted its refugee arrivals to the Triad on Tuesday, citing economic conditions.
The announcement by the nonprofit, which has operated in the Triad since 1979, comes after a spate of problems in serving clients. “This is a financial decision driven by the current economic conditions,” stated an unsigned statement on the LFS Web site, “that have affected the program’s sustainability at this site.”
Neither the agency’s executive director, the Rev. Laura Benson, nor Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Gibson-Wise, could be reached for comment.
Existing refugee clients will be “transitioned” to other resettlement agencies in the Triad between now and June, the statement says. At that point, LFS refugee work in the Triad will cease and will be limited to Raleigh and Columbia, S.C.
“It’s going to be devastating,” Heather Scavoni, an immigration lawyer for LFS, said Tuesday. “Between Miami and here, the wealth of knowledge is concentrated in the Greensboro office.”
LFS, which contracts with the U.S. State Department to relocate refugees who are uprooted by war and political upheaval, is one of four resettlement agencies in the Triad.
The others remaining will be Church World Services, World Relief of High Point and N.C. African Services Coalition.
About one-third of all refugees coming to North Carolina come to the Triad, the state refugee coordinator has reported, because of the concentration of resettlement agencies here.
In the 1990s, LFS played the lead role in turning the city into what outside observers likened to a “little Ellis Island.”
But recently, a combination of staff turnover, scarce resources and a grim employment outlook for newcomers resulted in turmoil at the agency.
Last fall, the state refugee coordinator noted that a Burmese refugee and former LFS client who turned up at Greensboro Urban Ministry’s night shelter was the first reported homeless refugee in North Carolina.
That case was followed by months of upheaval for resettled Iraqis, whom LFS moved to apartments in the Hunters Glen complex off U.S. 29. There, some units had no heat, plumbing leaked and clients lacked proper clothing and follow-up services.
By last week, some Iraqis whom LFS resettled to Greensboro last summer had become so desperate for work that a few had signed on with a staffing company, Labor Solutions, to work at a poultry plant in Moorefield, W.Va., by arrangement with LFS.
The local agency’s director of employment services for refugees, Vicki Dithane, attended a meeting of Burmese refugees at the Kitchen Operations Center on Tuesday night but said LFS staff members themselves had not yet been informed of the announcement.
The newspaper articles detailed LFS refugee clients being severely neglected (here) (here) (here) and (here). LFS placed refugees in a dangerous apartment complex (Hunters Glen Apartments had a large number vacancies due to many code violations when LFS placed the refugees there) that had apartments without heat, with doors that didn’t close, and with leaking toilets. Refugee clients did not receive basic used clothing items, e.g. young Iraqi refugees walked around in December four months after arriving in what clothes they were able to bring from Iraq, thin jackets and flip-flops. They had to find furniture in the garbage. After only four months refugees didn’t even have enough money for rent, even though refugee cash assistance should have been good for their first eight months at least.
A former LFS employee who commented wrote the following about LFS’s Chief Executive Suzanne Gibson-Wise:
“[She sent to employees] via courier a package containing a letter of termination and a handful of forms to sign, one such form threatening them if they choose to badmouth LFS after the termination they will forfeit their right to draw unemployment. Of course this was illegal……[Your] company paid vehicles, the wireless internet in your home, your endless Blackberries, your peronal (sic) commode and your $4000.00 office conference table. (Remember, you got it because the one that was in the office when you came wasn’t good enough).”
It seems that LFS may not necessarily have closed their refugee resettlement operations in Greensboro for a lack of finances, as they claim, or how else would their Chief Executive have been able to afford all these luxuries while her refugee clients went without proper clothing and rent money just four months after their arrival?
By the way, LFS’s 2008 990 form (most recent available) shows that 94% of its funding came from the government (here). LIRS touts its affiliates’ contributions to the U.S. refugee resettlement program as the vital “private sector” contribution — this one run with 94% government funding.
Our question is this: if this is the best that a senior refugee resettlement agency can do — spending government funds on employee luxuries while seriously neglecting refugees — what does that say about the refugee resettlement agencies’ trustworthiness as partners in refugee resettlement? Also, what does it say about the State Department relying on VOLAGS to police their own affiliates?
Finally, would LFS have stopped its abuses if the media had not become involved? Would anyone — the NC state refugee coordinator, the State Department, LIRS — have stopped them without media involvement? Probably not because similar situations country all over the country.
UPDATE: February 25, 2010 (here)