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Secrecy shrouds shutdowns of behavioral health providers

Nancy Jo Archer breaks down as she talks about being forced out of Hogares, a nonprofit agency she has run since 1974. (ADOLPHE PIERRE-LOUIS/JOURNAL)
Nancy Jo Archer breaks down as she talks about being forced out of Hogares, a nonprofit agency she has run since 1974. (ADOLPHE PIERRE-LOUIS/JOURNAL)
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Nancy Jo Archer spent 39 years helping to build and run Hogares, a nonprofit agency that provides mental health services to thousands of severely emotionally disturbed children.

She helped pack it up and close it down – against her will, sometimes in tears – in two weeks.

Archer started working at Hogares in 1974 when the nonprofit was just beginning and served 18 children in three group homes. She became the executive director in 1977, and the organization grew to serve as many as 2,000 clients a month in four counties.

Those clients will still be served by a new agency, but during what Archer calls a “hostile takeover,” the Hogares name goes into mothballs and she is out of a job.

It’s an astonishing chain of events. It started when the state Department of Human Services ordered audits of Hogares and 14 other nonprofits that provide behavioral health services, then announced that the audits showed “widespread and egregious fraud” and turned over the findings to the state attorney general for investigation, froze funding to the agencies and ordered a takeover of the majority of the audited agencies.

All 15 mental health providers were lumped under the same, vague “widespread and egregious fraud” accusation without having been given any specific charges. At 12 of the 15 agencies, management is being taken over by Arizona companies chosen by the state; the other three will operate under oversight.

Hogares, along with seven other nonprofits, asked a federal judge for a temporary restraining order to put the process on hold last month but were denied when the judge said they hadn’t established that their legal arguments would prevail in their lawsuit, a requirement for extraordinary relief.

Archer took a break from cleaning out nearly four decades of paperwork and personal effects at the Hogares complex at 12th Street and Griegos NW in Albuquerque the other day to share with me how it feels to lose your life’s work, close down an agency you built and have a decades-long professional reputation tarnished without being able to defend yourself.

“It’s a hostile takeover,” Archer said. “It’s an exercise in absolute power by the state with no due process. To paint us all exactly the same, it still doesn’t make sense.”

The scenario could have been written by Franz Kafka: You’re accused of vague wrongdoing based on evidence you can’t see. Because the charges aren’t specific and because you’re not allowed to see the evidence, you can’t defend yourself. And you couldn’t defend yourself anyway because there’s no process under which to do so. You lose your job at a private agency because the government says so.

Might all of this supposed fraud eventually be proved true? Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. It’s difficult to assess the evidence when government agencies conduct public executions before the trial.

The attorney general and the administration have both refused to release the audit findings, citing them as evidence in a pending criminal investigation.

When I went to Hogares, the offices were in disarray, with moving boxes piled in hallways and computer equipment stacked up waiting to be hauled into storage. New management was set to take over in three days, and everyone except Archer and Hogares’ chief financial officer had the opportunity to be rehired by the new managers. Still, Archer told me, “Morale is about 70 degrees below zero. People are feeling a lot of angst, a lot of grief, apprehension.”

Before June 24, when Archer and the heads of 14 other agencies that provide mental health services funded by Medicaid were called to a meeting in Santa Fe by Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier, sat down in a conference room and told their agencies were no longer their own, Archer had spent a respected career as a youth advocate.

A native of Magdalena who graduated from Socorro High School and the University of New Mexico, Archer went into social work for the state’s human services agency, before the Children, Youth and Families Department was created, and found her calling.

“It became my passion,” Archer told me. “When I had that job. it was like, ‘Oh, my god, this is where I need to be.’ I could see that you could make a difference.”

While she served as the executive director of Hogares (Spanish for “hearths” or “homes”) Archer helped first lady Alice King develop CYFD and was one of the founders and a board president of New Mexico Voices for Children.

As we talked about what these allegations mean to her professional reputation, Archer started to cry.

“It feels awful, just awful,” she said. “It sort of demeans what you’ve done.”

Archer told me her emotions have ranged among shock, anger, sadness and frustration.

“I never would have believed we would have any governmental entity to have this much power to do this to 15 agencies,” she said. “And to feel so impotent. There’s no place to go to say, ‘What did we do wrong? Where can we correct it?’”

By the time last week when she walked out the door at Hogares, Archer had helped to build it into an organization with 270 employees and an annual budget of almost $10 million, 82 percent of that in Medicaid funding. Archer’s salary was $118,000.

Archer said with that large a budget and the amount of services Hogares provides, she expected an audit to find mistakes, but she categorically denied committing fraud.

“I’ve been very surprised at the number of calls I’ve gotten and the support I’ve received. And I think one of the reasons for that is that I do have high ethics – and that 15 agencies got painted with the same brush, it just doesn’t ring true to people. People that know me don’t believe it.”

Archer had been talking to her board of directors before the takeover happened about formulating a management transition plan in the event she retired, although retirement was not in her immediate plans.

“I sort of resent leaving my career in this way,” she said. “That’s painful. It’s been my passion. I’ve spent my whole life doing this. This has been my identity. I’m going to struggle with that.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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