Kansas suicide prevention nonprofit’s executive director and entire board of directors resign
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Kansas suicide prevention nonprofit’s executive director and entire board of directors resign

Kansas suicide prevention nonprofit’s executive director and entire board of directors resign

The entire board of directors and executive director have resigned from Lawrence-based HeadQuarters Kansas, which operates the 988 suicide hotline for all 105 counties. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — The interim executive director and board of directors of suicide prevention organization HeadQuarters Kansas have resigned amid a staff and volunteer revolt, accusations of misuse of grant funds and concerns about the potential loss of state and county funding.

HeadQuarters Kansas, based in Lawrence, operates the 988 suicide crisis call center for all 105 counties in the state. It is affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The departures on Monday of Ruby Johnson, interim executive director, Michelle Fales, board chairwoman, and the recent resignations of five other board members capped months of management turmoil.

“We have created new accountability structures in our relationships with funders, partners and each other,” said Johnson, who agreed in April to take on the role of interim executive director and step down from the board. “The agency faces new challenges, but it is up to others to address them. I move forward with pride in the work I have done, confident that I have overcome those challenges with integrity and love for those who embody the mission of building resilience and preventing suicide.”

Johnson replaces interim CEO Becky Price, who held the top job from February to April. Price was hired following the abrupt January departure of Steve Devore, who had been president and CEO of the organization since 2019.

In a memo to HeadQuarters Kansas employees, Fales said she resigned Monday after months of “lies and threats” from people more interested in stirring controversy than achieving results. She took over as board chair in November and initiated a survey of employees, board members and community partners in response to Devore’s overdue employee performance review.

“This study opened up a Pandora’s box of misuse of grant funds,” Fales said. “The board giving bonuses that weren’t allowed under the grant. Buying family golf tickets with grant funds. Buying more than $5,000 worth of items for a ‘therapy’ dog.”

She alleged that three administrative employees at HeadQuarters Kansas were responsible for overseeing an estimated $206,000 in spending between 2021 and 2023 that may not have been in line with grant guidelines. The spending was embedded in budget documents in a way that made it difficult for the board to track it, she said.

Fales said she asked for clarification in 2022 about bonuses given to some employees and was allegedly misled by Devore.

Fales said the board of directors ultimately made the decision to resign or fire two staff members, including Devore.

Fales also complained that Andrew Brown, deputy assistant secretary of programs at the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services, counseled dissident staff and urged her to resign from the board. Before working at KDADS, Brown was executive director of HeadQuarters Kansas.

“The board was denigrated, bullied, intimidated, harassed, while continuing to act in the best interest of keeping the organization solvent and cleaning up the mess that previous management had created,” Fales said. “It became abundantly clear that while most of the people who work at HeadQuarters Kansas Inc. may be in the mental health space, they are not willing to engage in constructive conversation with anyone who disagrees with them.”

The departures of Fales, Johnson and the other board members meant that an attorney would likely be appointed to coordinate the selection of a new board.

In April, 75 to 100 current and former HeadQuarters Kansas employees and volunteers publicly demanded a complete management overhaul. In a letter to the organization’s leaders Friday, the coalition of employees promised to initiate a walkout if Fales and Johnson did not resign by Monday.

The letter said HeadQuarters Kansas is at risk of losing state and county funding and that “the unfair dismissal of our associates who expressed concerns or disapproval has changed our workplace culture from one of collaboration to one of fear and distrust.” Fears have been raised that the controversy at HeadQuarters Kansas could lead to the loss of state funding for the 988 hotline, undermine funding from Douglas County and ultimately force the agency to close.

Hope Blankenship, vice president of operations at HeadQuarters Kansas, has taken over as executive director. Blankenship told the Lawrence Times that there have been no interruptions in the organization’s calling, texting or chat services.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched in Kansas in July 2022. In preparation for the launch, Kansas integrated HeadQuarters Kansas, COMCARE of Sedgwick County and Johnson County Crisis Line into the 988 network. The three centers operate with state funding and oversight from KDADS and the 988 Coordinating Council. For the Lawrence site, KDADS has budgeted $3.7 million for the agency in fiscal year 2023.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) charitable organization. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. For questions, contact Editor Sherman Smith at [email protected]. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and X.