Lawsuit accuses Head Start operator of inflating enrollment with ‘ghost children’

The whistleblower alleges Head Start pre-K program defrauded the federal government of over $100M.

Head Start Ghost Children

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A lawsuit alleges that an Oahu Head Start operator padded enrollment by hundreds of students, defrauding millions of dollars from the state and federal governments.

A recently unsealed lawsuit by former Head Start worker Bethany Lewis said staffers at the Honolulu Community Action Program felt pressured to invent “ghost children” to qualify for federal and state grants.

“In the beginning I felt confused. I was kind of disgusted and ashamed to the point it was basically intolerable," said Lewis in a telephone interview.

HCAP operates Head Start program at over 70 locations across Oahu, offering pre-K classes and meals for under privileged children.

In the past six years, HCAP has received more than $107 million in state and federal grants, the suit said. To qualify for that funding, it must have at least 1,659 students in its programs at all times.

The lawsuit said officials inflated enrollment by 489 students in the 2016 school year and by 209 students the year before.

Evidence in the lawsuit includes an audio recording of a staff meeting, in which a top manager said: “When we’re trying to get full enrolled, we pull from everywhere. We’ve been known to have a few ghost kids here and there."

Lewis' lawyers also cited a 2013 email in which a program manager, Melanie Ho, instructed staffers not to report enrollment drop outs immediately.

“If you have a drop, please hold off on dropping him or her from your roster and talk to me first,” Ho wrote.

“We need to meet funded enrollment so every child listed on ChildPlus is crucial if we are getting an extension.”

The so-called ghost children include students who applied but are not enrolled, students who have dropped out, and others who were ineligible or improperly enrolled, the suit said.

“To me, there’s clearly fraud but it wasn’t just like [they were] making up a student and saying it’s a Head Start student. They actually made up a fact pattern for these students,” said Michael Green, Lewis' attorney, who filed the Qui Tam lawsuit.

But HCAP denied that it inflated its figures, which are audited by the federal government. It said the federal government investigated Lewis' allegations, but chose not to pursue them.

While there may be Head Start vacancies, HCAP added that those are usually filled quickly by students on a wait list.

“HCAP has correctly reported enrollment figures to the federal Head Start program and that the complaint is based on incorrect assumptions,” HCAP said in a statement to Hawaii News Now.

If HCAP loses the lawsuit, it could be forced to pay back some of the $100 million in federal and state grants it has already received

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