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City Slow to Act as Hope for Foster Children Fails

November 6, 2007

Taken as a young child from her drug-abusing mother, the girl had lived in one foster home after another. Now, at 16, she saw the day approaching when she would become an adult and be sent off to make a life on her own.

She desperately wanted to be ready, and one last bit of help seemed to be at hand. New York City had paid her foster care agency, a sprawling organization called Miracle Makers, hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for workshops in which trained professionals would teach teenagers like her - who often end up jobless, homeless or in jail - the practical skills they needed to survive.

There was a catch: The workshops did not exist.

The girl complained in 2003, and the Manhattan Family Court referee hearing her case eventually discovered that Miracle Makers had not offered the classes for about a year and a half.

Yet city officials had continued to pay, after the agency assured them that a substitute program was in place, even though it did not provide the expert training. All told, the city paid about $400,000 for a program that the court referee and others suggested was largely a sham.

Miracle Makers aimed to provide children and families a vast range of assistance as it consumed more than $350 million in city, state and federal funds over two decades. But an examination by The New York Times shows that many of those goals went unfulfilled as the agency slowly collapsed under its own mismanagement, wasting money and failing to provide services.

And the city, Miracle Makers' biggest client, shares some of the blame. The examination makes clear that the agency's long unraveling was abetted by a shortage of oversight and action throughout the system - particularly by city child welfare officials, who recruited Miracle Makers into foster care, financed its headlong growth, then failed either to notice or to confront its flaws. Repeated warnings and complaints from state and city officials, auditors, judges and children were missed or unheeded.

New York had invested big hopes as well as money in Miracle Makers, which emerged in the late 1980s as part of the city's groundbreaking effort to put black and Latino foster children in the hands of agencies run by minorities.

One of the largest of those organizations, Miracle Makers moved far beyond foster care to provide everything from doctors and drug treatment to housing for the homeless, serving more than 5,000 children and adults in 32 programs across Brooklyn and Queens, and building a national profile. The actor Ossie Davis narrated a promotional video, and the agency's founder was lauded in Senate testimony for his efforts to prevent teenage pregnancy.

But there has never been a full public accounting of what went wrong at Miracle Makers, or how it spent millions of dollars in government funds and private donations before child welfare officials lost patience with its performance and canceled its foster care contract in 2005.

The Times's examination found that hundreds of thousands of dollars went for programs that appeared to exist chiefly on paper. Workers and money were improperly shuffled from one government contract to shore up another.

Miracle Makers' board of directors - filled with neighborhood people whose involvement was hailed as a prime virtue of the city's experiment - was kept largely in the dark by agency executives for years, with little complaint. Local politicians spoke up to keep the agency from losing contracts, and intervened in its affairs.

City officials were confronted with clear evidence of the agency's dysfunction as early as 2001, when a team of investigating experts warned, in a report never made public, that Miracle Makers was badly mismanaged and expanding too fast. The child welfare commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, said he left the job that year believing that his office would soon close the agency's foster care operation.

Yet the city let it continue for three and a half more years, feeding it additional millions as its evaluations remained dismal, its finances derailed and its children suffered. For much of that time, the man with the ultimate say over the agency's fate was Mr. Scoppetta's successor, William C. Bell - a former top executive at Miracle Makers.

Today, Miracle Makers has lost most of its state and city contracts, though the city still pays it more than $7 million a year for day care and AIDS services. Leonard Stewart, its current head, said the agency had recovered from its troubles and was doing good work.

Miracle Makers executives, past and present, denied any wrongdoing by the agency. They pointed out that despite its problems, its staff had helped rescue and nurture thousands of children and families in some of New York's most distressed neighborhoods.

"These were children that looked like us, and experienced the same things that we experienced, and we wanted to see the best possible outcomes for them," said Ann Vanterpool-Brown, the executive director from 2002 to 2005.

Miracle Makers' founder, a church deacon named Willie Wren, said that although his agency had repeatedly stepped up to help city officials, neither the city nor the state had ever provided enough money or guidance to help surmount its handicaps as a start-up operation.

"I always felt that we really never caught up," Mr. Wren said.

The Birth: Instant Results

Willie Wren's path to the top of a social services empire was an unorthodox one. The son of an Alabama coal miner, he was cleaning subway cars at night and rehabilitating brownstones in the 1970s when he helped his Pentecostal church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, start a handful of thriving day care centers that eventually became The Miracle Makers Inc.

He had no experience in foster care when the city asked him to start taking neglected children in 1986. But in less than four years, the city transformed Mr. Wren's modest operation into one of the largest new foster care agencies in New York. By 1990, Miracle Makers reported, it had 350 employees, 740 children and a budget of $8 million.

"This is an exhilarating time for us," wrote Mr. Wren, a dapper man with the inspirational skills of a preacher.

The city's reliance on this fledgling outfit was born largely of desperation. A collision of crises - crack, AIDS, homelessness, teenage pregnancy - had filled child welfare offices and hospitals with abandoned children.

Asked to help, Mr. Wren immediately set up an emergency nursery. When the city insisted that the babies be quickly placed with foster families, his staff reached out to neighbors and churches, recruiting hundreds of parents.

"He turned on a dime to respond," said Eric Brettschneider, who ran foster care for the city.

The city's gamble dovetailed with a decision by state and city officials to help create and support a half-dozen minority foster care agencies, after years of complaints from child welfare experts and politicians that the established agencies were led by white executives far removed from the neighborhoods and problems of the black and Latino children they cared for.

Of all the new agencies, the city seemed especially impressed with one. "Miracle Makers and Willie Wren, in particular, have indeed been justifying their name," said a 1988 memo by Mr. Brettschneider's successor, Brooke Trent.

Ms. Trent recalled that both she and Mr. Wren got what they wanted as he took a flood of children off the city's hands. "I used him," she said, "and he was building up an agency."

But as Mr. Wren built his agency, city officials were dismantling their rigorous system for evaluating foster care. In 1991, Robert Little, who headed child welfare under Mayor David N. Dinkins, disbanded a 66-member oversight staff, substituting a cooperative process with more cursory evaluations.

Mr. Little, who has since died, said he was trying, in part, to save money. A former aide recalled that Mr. Little believed the assessment system discriminated against the minority agencies.

There was concern about the loss of oversight. David Tobis, a former City Council aide who had helped create the evaluation system 10 years earlier, delivered a stern warning in 1992. "The city does not have the means to know what is happening in foster care," he said in a news article. "We're heading for a serious crisis."

The Board: On the Sidelines

If city officials would not hold Miracle Makers to strict account, someone else could: a seasoned, skeptical board of directors.

Yet for his board, Mr. Wren chose friends, church leaders and business associates - many of whom were devoted to the agency's work but short on experience and independence. The chairwoman for more than 15 years listed her occupation as "homemaker." Other directors included an employee of the bank Miracle Makers used, and Mr. Wren's brother, a pastor.

The agency was staffed in much the same way. Mr. Wren's wife, Matilda, who helped found the agency, ran the service that fed children in day care. Her niece worked in human resources, and her sister-in-law was a foster care supervisor. Mr. Wren's sister also worked in foster care.

Miracle Makers had the opportunity to create a more independent board in the mid-1990s, helped by a United Way program that trained minority professionals to serve in nonprofit boardrooms.

"We were young, dynamic, hungry, eager," said Danné L. Johnson, then a lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission, who was among the recruits.

But she slowly grew to believe that Miracle Makers had enlisted them as "window dressing for the agency," she said, because the job came with little information and even less work.

Mr. Wren says he kept the board fully informed. But Ms. Johnson and other board members said they did not evaluate his performance, approve budgets or even see financial statements. They met only four times a year for dinners where Mr. Wren talked about his programs and plans. There were no votes, Ms. Johnson said, and hardly any questions.

"I don't need to travel to Brooklyn to have chicken," she recalls another new director saying. "We're not doing anything."

While the board sat by, millions of dollars poured in, and the agency's blue awnings popped up all over as it expanded into what Mr. Wren called "wraparound services" to bolster families: a program to work with parents to keep children out of foster care; help for AIDS patients; and housing for teenagers and the mentally retarded. Mr. Wren told the board of plans to buy a supermarket and a gas station to provide jobs and training.

"The glass was always half full," recalled one former director, Erika Marshall-Story, who said it was easy to get caught up in Mr. Wren's enthusiasm "because you wanted to believe that everything was fine."

Everything wasn't. In 1997, records show, the city's health department canceled a contract to provide housing and services for about 40 tuberculosis patients, saying Miracle Makers had failed to file fiscal reports or give required care. The agency denied the accusations.

The state's health department had a more basic concern. In 2000, after reviewing a report on Miracle Makers' finances, it questioned whether the agency could survive another year. "Please submit a plan to ensure continued solvency," the department wrote.

Ms. Johnson, who became chairwoman in 1999, said the board was unaware of either complaint. But in 2001, she received a letter from the State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities about serious flaws in a program for retarded adults. She said officials threatened to shut the program unless the board met with them immediately.

Stunned, she said, she pressed Mr. Wren to keep the board better informed. But a few months later, Ms. Johnson read in a newspaper what Mr. Wren already knew: In a citywide evaluation of foster care, Miracle Makers had scored dismally. Among the roughly 40 agencies, it had finished in last place.

As surprising as that was, she said, it made sense.

"We turn into a multimillion-dollar agency overnight, with no additional training for the staff, no additional training for the management," Ms. Johnson said. "And if you look at the résumés of the people in place, you ask yourself, 'Do these people run a $35 million corporation?' Your answer is resoundingly: 'No. Hell, no. They can barely balance their checkbook.' "

The City: Moment of Truth

The alarm sounded even louder in City Hall. The new assessment, after all, was the city's own: its first hard look in a decade at what was happening to children in foster care.

The city had cut back on oversight in 1991, but the scandalous 1995 death of a 6-year-old girl spurred Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to create a new department, the Administration for Children's Services, which began developing a more sophisticated way to scrutinize foster care.

When that new evaluation system, called Equip, was unveiled in the summer of 2001, it not only showed Miracle Makers in last place, but went into disturbing detail: Waiting times for getting children adopted or reunited with their families were among the longest. The program to prepare teenagers for life after foster care rated a zero.

The city began to act. It stopped sending new cases to Miracle Makers, which was already responsible for more than 800 foster children. A team of three outside experts - led by John Courtney, a former city child welfare official who had long supported the minority agencies - investigated what was behind the terrible scores.

The team's report, delivered to Mr. Wren and his board, was unsparing - a 35-page portrait of an organization riddled with fundamental flaws: huge caseloads, high turnover, a staff poorly trained and supervised, an agency too busy "putting out fires" to plan for children's futures.

The turmoil, it concluded, began at the top, with unqualified administrators, lax hiring practices and a cowed and ineffectual board. The agency's own future was threatened, it cautioned, by a shortage of cash and an increasing dependence on borrowing. And presiding over it all was a chief executive, Mr. Wren, who made nearly every decision, large or small.

The team's recommendations were blunt: The agency's "aggressive expansion" must stop, and Mr. Wren must prepare to step down. Mr. Wren, who criticizes the report today as superficial and inaccurate, left the agency nine months later.

The Courtney report did not urge the city to close the agency's $18 million-a-year foster care program; it stated upfront that Miracle Makers "must be supported, strengthened and encouraged to continue."

Still, the report, forwarded to the Children's Services commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, fueled a debate in the department over Miracle Makers' future.

The city had already shut four minority foster programs for mismanagement or fraud, and Mr. Scoppetta recalls that as he stepped down in late 2001, he believed that Miracle Makers would be next. "When I left, I thought the A.C.S. would discontinue doing business with Miracle Makers," he said. "They were close to doing it."

But his deputy and successor - William Bell, appointed by the new mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg - did not remove Miracle Makers from foster care, even as it continued to finish at or near the bottom of the Equip rankings for the next three years.

Mr. Bell had worked at Miracle Makers for four years in the early 1990s, eventually overseeing foster care and other programs. In November 2001, two months after the Courtney report's harsh conclusions, he spoke at a Miracle Makers fund-raising dinner, praising Mr. Wren and tracing his own success to his days there.

"I stand here today," he said, "really being a miracle of birth out of Miracle Makers."

Mr. Bell declined several requests for an interview. Several people, including some who had worked for Children's Services, suggested that he was swayed by loyalty to his former employer.

Other former aides disagreed, saying Mr. Bell felt that Miracle Makers and other poorly ranked minority agencies deserved more chances because they lacked the resources of established organizations. They said he also believed that Miracle Makers was improving, as the city sent in teams to help.

But Lisa Parrish, a deputy to Mr. Bell, said she ultimately told her colleagues that they had to stop propping up the agencies. "I felt that we couldn't let the poor performance go on indefinitely," she said. "There had to come a time when something has to be done."

Miracle Makers' board of directors, too, was eager for change - finding a successor to Mr. Wren to lead the agency in a new direction. But they collided with Albert Vann, who had been a political patron of Miracle Makers from the beginning.

As chairman of the State Assembly's Committee on Children and Families, Mr. Vann had secured money that helped start a half-dozen foster agencies run by minorities. As Miracle Makers became a growing source of jobs and services for his Brooklyn district, he became its strong advocate.

Mr. Wren, he said, "was astute enough to realize that he had to use elected officials who work within the area."

But some agency executives and directors felt that Mr. Vann's close ties could be a hindrance. In 1999, when Children's Services officials closed a Bedford-Stuyvesant foster agency for mismanagement, they sent more than 200 children and 20 staff members to Miracle Makers - at Mr. Vann's request.

"Al Vann wanted them to stay in this district," recalled Mr. Wren, who said he had accepted the added burden, but believed that the infusion of mishandled cases and unhappy employees had hobbled his agency.

Now, as the board considered a national search for the best qualified leader, Mr. Vann, recently elected to the City Council, stepped in.

In May 2002, he summoned the board chairwoman, Ms. Johnson, and other directors to his office to meet with elected officials. Ms. Johnson said Mr. Vann pointedly asked why they had not given the job to Mr. Wren's candidate, the agency's in-house lawyer, Ms. Vanterpool-Brown.

Ms. Johnson said she felt he was trying to intimidate the board, as did another director, Wylia Sims. "I mean, just to have the audacity to dictate to us what we should do," Ms. Sims said. "It wasn't like a request."

Mr. Vann says he did not try to coerce the board, but would have favored the lawyer because she had worked closely with Mr. Wren, whose work he admired.

In the end, the board voted for the national search. But grant money for the search never materialized, and the board gave the job to Mr. Wren's choice.

The Children: A Waiting Game

Around the time the city was getting the bad news about Miracle Makers, in late 2001, a Brooklyn Family Court referee confronted a troubling case of his own: a 17-year-old girl who had been in the agency's care since age 8.

The girl, who had been beaten repeatedly by her father and was mildly retarded, wanted nothing more than to be adopted by her foster mother, who was just as eager. So the referee told Miracle Makers to file a petition to terminate the parents' rights, a standard step toward adoption. He set a deadline: 30 days.

But over the next three years, as the city allowed Miracle Makers to remain in foster care, the agency never filed the petition, or explained why it could not. The court even threatened Miracle Makers employees with arrest for failing to show up at hearings.

Nothing worked, and the presiding judge, Betty E. Staton, blamed city officials as much as Miracle Makers. "How long did the city know that this agency was not performing at the level that they should have been?" Judge Staton said in an interview. "How long did they know that?"

The Courtney report had warned in 2001 that adoptions took too long and records were incomplete, often lacking documents as critical as birth certificates. "Acceptance of this standard of work is perplexing," the report said.

Yet in case after case, that low standard persisted. In one girl's case there were no records at all; Miracle Makers had lost the documents needed to terminate parental rights, said Zoë G. Allen, the girl's Legal Aid lawyer. Ms. Allen said that she, a city lawyer and a clerk tried to reconstruct the file, without success. That was in 2004, she said, and the girl is still in foster care.

Another case Ms. Allen handled was stalled for more than a year after Miracle Makers named the wrong man as the father in its legal papers. "They'd been proceeding against the wrong guy the entire time," she said, "because they hadn't checked the birth certificate."

Karen Simmons, the Legal Aid Society's supervising attorney in Brooklyn, said her lawyers had tried for years to persuade city officials to get tough with the agency. "And it was just nothing," she said. "It felt like Miracle Makers was just being left to their own devices."

Some children went without crucial services, like the psychiatric counseling that Miracle Makers and city social workers agreed a brother and sister from Canarsie urgently needed after what one Brooklyn Family Court judge called a "horrific case of sexual abuse." The children, ages 9 and 10, had been molested frequently over two years by their mother's boyfriend.

Their care, however, was disrupted by staff turnover and by a foster mother who kept missing appointments, as the children's anger and distress mounted. When the judge, Bryanne A. Hamill, learned in court in 2005 that they had been without therapy for months, she blasted Miracle Makers.

"They fail families," she said.

But if anyone had a chance at success, it was the mildly retarded teenager who had been beaten by her father. Her parents had abandoned her, and everyone in the case agreed that her adoption should happen quickly.

Yet a year after Miracle Makers was told to file the necessary petition, the girl was still waiting, fearful that she might be taken from her loving foster mother or returned to her abusive father. "I don't want to go back home," she pleaded in a letter to her Legal Aid lawyers.

Four months after that, in March 2003, Susan Danoff, a referee who has since become a judge, ruled that the agency had "failed to make reasonable efforts," and told Miracle Makers to send someone to court to explain.

Four months after that, a Miracle Makers supervisor appeared and offered an answer: the case had "possibly slipped through the cracks."

And seven months after that, in February 2004, the case landed before Judge Staton, who was appalled by the delays. "There's absolutely no excuse," she said in court. By her reckoning, the girl could have been adopted eight or nine years earlier.

Finally, two lawyers working pro bono, David Baronoff and Andres Alvarez of Latham & Watkins, took the foster mother's case from Miracle Makers, and completed the adoption in seven months. By then the girl was 20.

Mr. Alvarez recalled that Miracle Makers did not even return their calls. "My only guess," he said, "is that whoever was running that agency thought that it was not in the business of helping children."

The Money: Debt and Disarray

Only a few days into his new job as financial consultant to Miracle Makers in late 2003, William Aiken met with bank representatives, who mentioned that the agency had bounced some checks.

Back at the office, Mr. Aiken said, he studied recent bank reports and found that the checks numbered about 200, costing Miracle Makers thousands of dollars in overdraft fees - $2,340 in one month alone - at a time when it was struggling to stay in the good graces of lenders and creditors. He said he told the agency's longtime comptroller that the practice had to stop.

Some months later, Mr. Aiken said, he learned that 80 more checks had bounced. "I was absolutely astonished," he recalled.

More than two years had passed since the Courtney report warned about the agency's finances. But as city officials continued to give Miracle Makers millions of dollars more, it fell mainly to Mr. Aiken - a veteran accountant whom the agency's new leaders turned to for help - to sort through the mess.

"You kept turning over rocks," he said, "and things kept happening."

Nothing in his long career as chief financial officer for both the Long Island Rail Road and the Jewish Child Care Association of New York, he said, had prepared him for this. Though Miracle Makers had revenues of more than $30 million a year, that figure had been dropping since the city stopped sending new foster children, and the agency was deep in debt. A bank credit line had been milked until the agency owed nearly $4 million - and was paying as much as $18,000 a month in interest.

Basic bookkeeping principles were often ignored, as employees had complained. Funds for various programs were sometimes intermingled, against government rules. Miracle Makers would tap one account to cover another that had fallen short, in a kind of shell game that kept the agency a step ahead of insolvency.

Another strategy was delay. Miracle Makers cut checks to pay its bills, then locked them away until there was money to cover them. This would remove the obligations from the books, and "create an illusion" that the agency was not in debt, an outside consultant told the board in 2003. Suppliers and other creditors kept calling, livid over not getting paid.

Bill Anderson, a former assistant director of foster care, recalled opening a desk drawer and finding a stack of undelivered checks totaling thousands of dollars: monthly allowances of up to $40 the city had allocated to help teenagers prepare for life on their own. Mr. Anderson said he tried to get the money to the children, but some had left foster care long ago.

Meanwhile, the bounced checks that Mr. Aiken discovered pointed to a more immediate problem: Months behind in reconciling its accounts, the agency had no idea how much money it had at any given time. "We're flying by the seat of our pants," he said he told the comptroller, Henry Guerrero.

Mr. Guerrero, who had steered Miracle Makers' finances for 18 years, was fired in April 2004 by the agency's director, Ms. Vanterpool-Brown. In an interview, he said he had been blamed unfairly for the agency's woes.

Mr. Aiken, who was appointed chief financial officer, worked with the agency's new leaders to keep Miracle Makers afloat, selling real estate and dismissing employees.

But even their efforts landed the agency in trouble. That summer, the city Human Resources Administration accused Miracle Makers of improperly using $366,000 from a human resources contract to pay other bills.

Mr. Aiken said the agency had acted to plug a temporary cash shortage that could have led to its closing and the loss of hundreds of jobs. "It's like, well, does the whole agency go down the tube?" he said, adding that the agency told the city what it had done and repaid the money.

Still, the city made Miracle Makers surrender the contract.

The Mysteries: Dead Ends

As Miracle Makers imploded, forfeiting contracts and attracting more scrutiny, questions about the millions of dollars it had run through only multiplied.

There were small matters, like the $2,399 the agency said it had spent on Palm Pilots - for its prekindergarten program. When the city's Education Department questioned the expenditure last year, asking whether the devices were appropriate for such young children, the agency said it had lost them.

Then there was a resort condominium in the Pocono Mountains that Miracle Makers bought from Mr. Wren and his wife in 1996 for $110,000, according to land records. Mr. Wren said the unit was intended for children's visits, but several former employees said they had never heard of it, and others said it was meant for executives. Mr. Guerrero, the former comptroller, said his family used the apartment several times.

Wylia Sims, who became chairwoman in 2003, said the board had no idea why the organization had bought the property. The agency sold it three years ago at a $14,000 loss. "We just wanted to get rid of it," she said.

A far bigger loss remains unexplained. In 2005, the State Office of Mental Retardation asked Miracle Makers to account for $900,000 it claimed as bad debts over three years. Yet the agency "could not provide us with a basis for the write-offs," state auditors wrote, "or any evidence that the board discussed these write-offs and approved them." The agency surrendered its contract.

Another puzzle is what became of more than $800,000 that Mr. Wren said he raised through donations and set aside in what he called an endowment account, to be used only in emergencies, then repaid. Current and former executives suggested that the money had been spent, but said they knew little more. Some said they were not even aware that such a fund had existed.

Money was not the only thing missing. In 2005, the city Department of Homeless Services reported that after it decided not to renew Miracle Makers' contract to run a Brooklyn apartment building for 175 homeless people, the agency took city property, including case files, computer equipment and the phone system. The agency disputes the claims.

Eight tenants had died in the program's final year, the investigators found. Only two deaths had been reported to the city.

Programs, too, seemed to vanish. The State Office of Children and Family Services concluded in a 2005 audit that one program "existed more in name than in substance."

The audit covered two years in which Miracle Makers was to receive $360,000 to work closely with 30 welfare mothers with drug or alcohol problems. But auditors found that employees supposedly assigned full time to the project were actually working on other programs, and that its director "spent little or no time actively managing" it. During one visit, the state learned that there was only one participant.

Although Miracle Makers denied the allegations, the state disallowed $94,000 in payments.

The city, however, was more accommodating when doubt was cast on one of its programs with Miracle Makers: the workshops sought by the 16-year-old girl who wanted to be ready to live on her own.

During a hearing in October 2003, a Manhattan Family Court referee, Marva Burnett, learned that the girl was not receiving any of the classes - on finding a job, handling money and staying sexually safe - that Miracle Makers had provided in the past. A caseworker said the agency had suspended them.

How long ago? Referee Burnett asked.

"I cannot give you a date," the caseworker replied.

The referee persisted: "How many months? How many weeks? How many days?"

She investigated in a series of hearings, and learned that Miracle Makers had not held the workshops for at least a year and a half.

She called in an agency executive, Jocelyn Harrison, who testified that Miracle Makers had stopped the classes because of staff turnover and its failure to pay the outside experts who were supposed to teach them.

Instead, Ms. Harrison said, the agency was issuing its caseworkers a manual and having them counsel the children one on one - though she conceded that the teenagers needed "a lot more" help, and that some employees resisted doing the work. The girl's own caseworker, Jennifer Grant, said she felt unqualified to provide much of the advice.

Children's Services officials say they looked into the agency's independent living program after a complaint in late 2002, and although services had been cut back, they were satisfied that it was a "functioning" program. They say the city continued paying the agency more than $250,000 a year, roughly $150,000 less than before.

But Referee Burnett was skeptical that Miracle Makers was even providing the girl with the one-on-one counseling. At one point she demanded, "I want to see proof."

The girl's caseworker, Ms. Grant, arrived at the next hearing with a stack of papers - each dated and signed by the girl - that appeared to document her presence at numerous counseling sessions over two years.

Yet when questioned, the girl testified that she had signed the documents recently - all at once - at the orders of Ms. Grant. And Ms. Grant, in turn, testified that she had been following the orders of a supervisor. She insisted, though, that the counseling had taken place, and Miracle Makers maintains today that it gave the girl sufficient help.

In February 2005, two years after the girl first complained, Referee Burnett ruled that she did not believe the agency's backdated paperwork, or its testimony. She directed Children's Services to investigate "to see if any fraud took place."

Children's Services said it referred the matter to the city's Department of Investigation. But that agency says it never received any referral, and can find no evidence it was ever sent.

There was no investigation.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company