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Caring community program has faults, McCaskill says

October 16, 2001
By: Amanda Joyce
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The "Caring Communities" approach to welfare services initiated by the late Gov. Mel Carnahan came under criticism Tuesday from Missouri's state auditor for failing to demonstrate it was worth the costs.

"Program officials charged with the responsiblity of overseeing the Caring Communities program have not been successful in implementing one of the cornerstones of te program -- assuring accountability," concluded the audit released by State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

The audit found financial and organizational problems that made it difficult to track the program's progress.

Caring Communities was designed in 1993 to improve education, safety, and employment opportunities for children and their parents by coordinating various social services services in a community.

Holding program officials accountable, researching where the money is needed, and setting quantifiable goals are the main areas highlighted for improvement in McCaskill's audit.

The audit's findings didn't come as a surprise to Mike Bloemeke, the Executive Director of Caring Communities in Columbia.

"It supported what we'd already identified as issues we needed to address," Bloemeke said.

Columbia's partnership is one of a total 21 partnerships within the Caring Communities program across the state.

Columbia is an example of a partnership that has struggled with the program. Columbia lacked the organization and data needed to put hundreds of thousands of state mental health dollars to use.

For three years in a row, the funds went unspent.

Nina Thompson is the spokesperson for the Family and Community Trust (FACT), the state-level organizing body for the program. She said she "didn't think the audit was negative."

"It's difficult when you go to the local level and give them a bunch of money," Thompson said. "They're not going to know right away where to spend that money."

Bloemeke said Columbia has $931,000 to spend for the current fiscal year that began in July.

"The partnership in Columbia has decided our role is not to be service providers," Bloemeke said. "We want to facilitate decision making and really focus on planning."

Identifying other resources such as outside funds and volunteers is going to be another focal point for the board, Bloemeke said.

Recognizing the program's deficiencies led to reorganization within Columbia's Caring Communities board.

"It started as a school-based program," Bloemeke said. "Now it's geographically based and we're working with schools and community groups."

Columbia is divided into three geographic regions: northeast, southeast and west.

One example of a recent project facilitated by the Columbia partnership was the Worley Street Project, which organized neighborhood organizations and local volunteers to beautify the Worley Street area.

Thompson said FACT is already working at the state level to improve the program. FACT created task forces to evaluate and make changes. It is also working with the Governor's office to create a reporting committee to track progress of the 21 partnerships.

No specific data has been gathered yet to track progress, but Thompson said there have definitely been improvements.

"We've already seen a difference between communities that have this program and those that don't. There is a sense of improvement," Thompson said.