Group addressing teen substance use continues struggle with VYFS

The volunteer group working to tackle teen substance abuse on Vashon is again in conflict with Vashon Youth & Family Services, and this time the dispute is leading some to worry that the VYFS PlaySpace is at risk.

The two groups met Monday evening with state and county officials  — after The Beachcomber’s press deadline — to try to reach an agreement and end a conflict that has involved attorneys as well as Vashon’s state senator.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure we can stabilize the grant on the island,” said VYFS Director Kathleen Johnson.

The conflict stems from how the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA) and VYFS, its fiscal sponsor, use a large grant the two groups garnered last year to help address the island’s higher-than-average rates of teen drinking and drug use.

Funds from the Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI) grant, which provides about $140,000 a year for five years, are largely used to fund programs at the VYFS PlaySpace, a family center that provides parenting classes, support groups, playgroups and more for island families.

Volunteers with VARSA, however, say they believe more dollars should be used outside the PlaySpace to fund programs that would create a multi-pronged approach to addressing teen substance abuse.

The volunteers say they’re now searching for answers on how the grant should be used and where the funds currently go, claiming VYFS hasn’t provided specific budget information requested. At least two volunteers say they suspect VYFS is using some of the money improperly on PlaySpace programs.

Both sides have consulted attorneys.

“VYFS has not been a willing and good partner with VARSA,” said Robin Blair, a VARSA member who has been with the group for five years and led planning efforts around the grant. “They have not shared information with VARSA, and when VARSA … started to figure it out and ask questions, they were treated like they were the bad guys.”

VYFS officials, however, insist the grant, — funding from the state Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS) that is administered by King County — is being used as VARSA originally intended. The grant is closely overseen by the state and county, and VYFS reports regularly on how the funds are spent, said Lori Means, the CPWI coordinator on Vashon and the director of the PlaySpace.

Neither Means nor Johnson could explain why VARSA members believed they hadn’t been given financial information they requested, but said the spending has all been well documented and perhaps there have been communication issues.

State and county officials involved in administering the grant did not return repeated calls from The Beachcomber.

“I can assure the community there has not been any fiscal mismanagement at VYFS,” Means said.

Faced with a Dec. 16 deadline from grant officials to agree on a new contract between VARSA and VYFS, VARSA leaders late last month said they were uncomfortable agreeing to a proposed contract and recommended members vote no.

In a Nov. 30 email to VARSA volunteers, VARSA chair Meri-Michael Collins said she and co-chair Diane Kjellberg continued to have concerns about what they believed to be VYFS’s lack of financial transparency. She wrote that VARSA was unable to enter into an “extremely complicated county contract … that is weighted toward VYFS having control over finances and staff” and they were concerned about VARSA and VYFS’s ability to put together an effective workgroup to focus on the grant’s use on Vashon, as required by the state and county.

In the email, Collins wrote the move was a difficult one “because a vote of NOT signing an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with VYFS may make it appear that VARSA is ‘walking away’ from a significant amount of funding.”

“There are some basic things we need to figure out before we say yes,” Collins said in an interview.

When no agreement was reached on an contract, Means and Johnson said they grew concerned the grant might be pulled and important funding for PlaySpace programs lost. Someone with VYFS put out a call for islanders to contact State Sen. Sharon Nelson with their concerns.

Nelson said she heard from many islanders, mostly parents who use the PlaySpace, as well as one VARSA volunteer, and since then has been in touch with the director of DSHS.

Nelson said she believes PlaySpace programs are vital on Vashon, but it is the state and county’s role to determine whether funds are being used correctly.

“DSHS is aware I’m concerned, but this a dispute between two nonprofits on the island,” Nelson said. “My intervention is merely to say let’s give them as much time as we can so we don’t lose the money.”

Some with VARSA say the conflict reminds them of what the group went through with VYFS earlier this year. Over the summer, a disagreement over how the two groups worked together came to a head when Johnson asked for the resignation of several VARSA coalition members. Those involved eventually worked through the disagreement, agreed on a new organizational structure and approved two new contracts — one for the CPWI grant (formerly called the Prevention Redesign Initiative grant) and one for a 10-year federal Drug Free Communities (DFC) grant that, if renewed next year, has the potential to provide $1.25 million in funding for prevention activities over the decade.

Luke McQuillin, VARSA’s project coordinator and a VYFS employee, stepped down in the process, leaving volunteers scrambling to pick up where he left off.

VARSA members say that since then, they’ve been focusing on programs funded by the federal DFC grant, which Vashon garnered four years ago and which funds projects to address the environmental and cultural norms behind substance abuse.

Eventually, however, volunteers say they began to question the CPWI grant —  funds many have said complements the federal grant by providing money that can be used on programming. The contract for the CPWI grant that the groups agreed on last summer also didn’t pass muster with state and county officials, though there’s disagreement over why.

VYFS and VARSA must now agree to an updated contract by Dec. 16 and complete a set of additional tasks outlined by grant officials or risk losing the funding.

Blair said she’s saddened by the situation and believes there have been missed opportunities — programs VARSA intended the grant to fund that never happened. According to a document provided by VYFS, the CPWI grant currently funds three full-time and four part-time staff members that run programs at the PlaySpace, partly replacing prevention funds VYFS lost in recent years. It also funds some programs in the schools.

Blair, on the other hand, said the grant was meant to fund more new programs that would provide a wider approach to combatting teen drinking and drug use. Blair recently moved out of state for a time, but moved back to Vashon part-time and questioned the grant’s use, saying she doesn’t understand where the money went.

Indeed, a 47-page VARSA strategic plan approved in June of 2012 shows that the group planned for much of the CPWI funding to go to PlaySpace programs, but not all of it. Blair points out several desired programs or activities that never happened, including training for athletic coaches, the purchase of additional drivers license readers to loan to stores that sell liquor and a large social norms campaign.

“(The grant) was intended to allow Vashon as a community to look at every level of our community, from infants to adults, and find out where gaps were, who needed support and how to build programming that changed our outcome. That has not happened,” Blair said.

Means, however, says that VYFS, which receives the funds from the county as VARSA’s fiscal sponsor, spends the money as decided by VARSA. In 2012, she said, VARSA recognized the important roles that strong parenting and early childhood intervention play in preventing substance abuse later in life and prioritized PlaySpace programs in its spending plan.

“The data on Vashon shows the most significant impact we can make is to educate parents about risk factors,” Means said.

Means and Johnson said that if any previously outlined projects didn’t happen, it would have been because of a choice by VARSA. The volunteers can choose to change what the grant funds go to in the future, they noted.

“They don’t understand the process that happened two years ago,” Johnson said. “None of that was created in secret or in a vacuum.”

As the two groups work to come to an agreement, members of the VARSA coalition — a group meant to include islanders from different parts of the community — say they’re growing increasingly frustrated and worried the coalition is distracted from accomplishing what it set out to do several years ago — decrease drug and alcohol use among eighth through 12th graders.

“For the life of me, I can’t figure out why we can’t hear each other,” Collins said.

Larry Kjellberg, who joined the VARSA coalition earlier this year and also believes VYFS is misusing the grant funds, recently suggested the best solution would be for VARSA to form its own nonprofit and take full control of the grant funding.

“I’m just getting really worn out from this,” he said. “It’s wrong. We tried negotiating. We tried being friendly. We tried everything we could do in this.”


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