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Still reeling from a forgery scandal, St. Christopher's, Inc. has closed one of its community health clinics and now plans to transfer ownership of its remaining three sites, which serve more than 2,000 clients each month.

The child welfare agency, once one of the city’s largest, lost $86 million in city contracts in early 2005 after the Department of Investigation revealed that members of its staff had altered records, falsely claiming to have conducted visits that never occurred.

Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) Commissioner John Mattingly quickly yanked St. Christopher's contracts, which governed foster care for nearly 700 children, forcing the agency to lay off 150 staffers and sell off chunks of property to make ends meet. But that wasn’t enough to shore up its budget, said Joseph Semidei, a former state and federal official brought on as executive director last March.

Now, more than a year later, St. Christopher's is still struggling to repair its image—and its finances.

The agency's four health clinics, originally intended to serve its foster care population, have only added to that burden, Semidei explained. Once the city contracts were lost, St. Christopher's tried opening the clinics to the community at large, but they never took off. “It was a very brave attempt on our part, but it wasn't the best decision from an economic standpoint,” said Semidei, who estimates that the centers are losing a combined $200,000–$250,000 per month.

The agency's Harlem site, located at 154 West 127th Street, shut its doors in March after its building was sold to Citicare, Inc., another health care provider with a facility across the street. Silva Umukoro, CEO of Citicare, said St. Christopher’s was never much competition. “We barely knew they were there,” he said. He now looks forward to expanding his operation in the new space, which is nearly four times the size of his current facility.

When Citicare bid on the building, it also offered to take in St. Christopher's former clients, Umukuro said, but the agency opted to refer them to its own Upper West Side location instead. A stack of letters at the Harlem site informs clients of the move: “Our 690 Amsterdam site is relatively close to our Harlem office, public transportation is nearby, and most of our doctors work there already,” it states.

City Limits visited the Harlem clinic last winter for a performance by formerly incarcerated men in a support group run by Dr. Harland Kessaris, director of mental health. The men took turns reading from a poem they had written about their experiences in prison. “They try real hard to turn you into some kind of animal,” said one participant, “but that doesn't mean you have to act like one.”

While the program was technically for “anger management,” Kessaris never embraced that term. “We provide a forum where people will feel free to say what's going on with them,” he said. “I don’t put anything on.”

Kessaris left the agency when the clinic closed in March. He understands the decision, he said, but thinks St. Christopher’s probably shouldn't have dabbled in health care in the first place. “They didn’t have the money or the expertise,” he said. “Now the community has lost a resource.”

The other three clinics will be transferred along with their 39 staffers to the Institute for Urban Family Health on July 1, pending state approval. Semidei said he hopes most of the staff will be retained, though some cuts may be necessary. Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute, could not be reached for comment.

On the bright side, Semidei noted, the closure of the clinics will allow St. Christopher's to develop new strengths. It is now working with the state Department of Education, for instance, to provide residential schools for children with special needs.

Looking back, Semidei said he recognizes his agency's mistakes but considers Mattingly's response too harsh. He wonders why the agency lost its preventive care contract when that program wasn’t implicated in the scam. In part, he suggests, ACS may have wanted to scale back capacity in the face of declining caseloads. “We were an easy target,” he said. “The punishment far exceeded the crime.”

John Courtney, co-director of the Partnership for Family Supports and Justice, isn’t so sure. While St. Christopher’s was once a leader in the field, he said, Mattingly was right to take the scandal seriously. “Child welfare in New York City is a complicated system and therefore any decision is always a complicated, multi-faceted decision,” he said. “But falsifying records can never be condoned. Once that trust is violated, there's very little you can do.”

—Cassi Feldman

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