GULFPORT -- The Gulf Coast Community Action Agency has lost its federal Head Start designation and along with it $9 million in federal money, officials said.
The Head Start program, which serves 1,368 children at seven Harrison County locations, will be taken over by the Community Development Institute.
A two-week holiday break for the children was set to begin Thursday and CDI Head Start should be in place to resume services on schedule in the new year, said Patrick Fisher, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start.
"The HHS (Health and Human Services) Administration for Children and Families is committed to the communities in which a Head Start grant has been awarded, and strives to ensure services continue with minimal disruption to children and families," Fisher said.
The Head Start staff members, though, were employed by GCCAA and will have to apply for jobs with CDI.
They were informed of the move by mail and at a meeting Thursday morning.
CDI will host a job fair for GCCAA employees to fill positions in the new program. The organization will run Head Start on the Coast until the Head Start grant is awarded to a new agency after a formal competitive process.
Allegations of child abuse
The termination of funding stems from an April 25, 2014, notice sent from the ACF to the GCCAA regarding five incidents of child abuse or corporal punishment between September 2013 and January 2014.
These involved "multiple teachers/assistant teachers engaging in conduct that included intentionally tossing a female child off a cot, hitting one child repeatedly with a ruler and spanking another, grabbing a child by her shirt and dragging her across the floor and shouting at her, pulling a child by the arm, hitting a child on the hand and bending back his fingers until they hurt and hitting another child on his face," according to the ruling from the HHS Departmental Appeals Board.
Notice of termination
On Dec. 17, 2014, the ACF sent GCCAA a notice of termination, based on the agency's lack of timely corrections to the identified deficiencies, the ruling said, including the agency's failure to report to the state a new allegation of child abuse.
The agency appealed that notice and was allowed to remain open through the appeals process. On Dec. 16, the HHS Departmental Appeals Board ruled against the GCCAA.
"We conclude that Gulf Coast's efforts to correct its deficiency are not material, most importantly, but not exclusively, because those efforts did not correct the abuse problems that led to ACF's deficiency determination and ultimately to termination of Gulf Coast's Head Start grant," the ruling says.
The GCCAA board of directors issued a statement saying it had received notification of the ruling, and repeating Head Start would be taken over by CDI but offered little other information.
Mismanagement of money
Those Head Start issues were not the agency's only problems over the years.
In fall 2014, the GCCAA self-reported to the regional Head Start headquarters in Atlanta the mismanagement of money.
In July, former GCCAA deputy director Linda Harvey-Irvin was sentenced to prison for a kickback scheme involving agency money, an investigation launched in April 2010 uncovered. Two other staffers were found guilty in the case.
Now, non-Head Start GCCAA employees are worried about what will happen to them -- just a week before Christmas.
The $9 million federal Head Start grant made up a significant portion of GCCAA's budget. Its combined annual revenues hover around $12 million or $13 million.
And employees said they hadn't been given a clear answer on what would happen to their jobs or to the agency.