DHS had more than 200 violations of state contract law within the past year

Documents show that within the past year, the Minnesota Department of Human Services broke state law more than 200 times, the Star Tribune reports. The newspaper’s review found that DHS allowed $52 million in contracts and grant commitments to vendors, Native tribes and other state government agencies without proper documentation.

In some cases, agency employees allowed vendors and grantees to perform work or services as if they were being paid by the state, even though contracts and agreements had not been finalized and signed. In other cases, employees bought products, such as software, without required permission.

According to the Star Tribune, the DHS said it has tools to prevent these types of scenarios, but lawmakers warn these violations create a tough situation for the agency where misuse of taxpayer dollars is a huge risk, while also making it harder to negotiate with vendors.

The story details some of the internal concerns that were raised:

“We broke the law,” DHS Chief Financial Officer Alexandra Kotze wrote in an April e-mail, responding to one internal report that detailed more than $300,000 in violations. “We need to be able to explain internally and to the [Department of Administration] how we will prevent this in the future.”

The story comes on the heels of a scathing report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. MPR’s Briana Bierschbach recently reported on the audit’s findings:

“Troubling dysfunction” at the Minnesota Department of Human Services led to $29 million in overpayments of federal funds to two tribes over the last decade for opioid abuse treatments covered by Medicaid, a new audit shows.

Meanwhile, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, told the Star Tribune that an independent forensic audit of all programs at DHS is needed in light of the violations.

MN DHS under scrutiny for treatment of employees with disabilities

The state agency that serves some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents is under scrutiny for how it treats its employees who have disabilities.

Two state senators are probing the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) after eight current and former employees told them the agency did not approve simple workplace accommodations. Sens. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, say they are so concerned by their findings that they are planning a legislative hearing on the issue in January.

“I’m disappointed because that organization should be the exemplar of meeting accommodations,” said Hoffman, who sits on the Senate human services reform committee with Abeler.

Sens. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Legislature)

In most cases, the senators say, DHS management slow-walked accommodation requests to the point that employees began to suffer on the job, both in their performance and their personal health. That is consistent with what two former DHS employees told the Pioneer Press; these employees also spoke to the senators.

A common theme emerged in the senators’ inquiry: DHS managers lacked the training to work with employees who have disabilities, and accommodation requests often stalled in the bureaucracy of state government.

Advocates say that failing to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities isn’t just against the law, it’s wrong and hurts both the workers and the organization.

The allegations bring fresh scrutiny on DHS — an $18 billion agency charged with administering services to the disabled, elderly and poor — at a time when it is under fire on several fronts. The department has also been scrutinized for misspending nearly $80 million in federal funds, violating state contract laws and allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers.

To be clear, DHS approves most of the accommodation requests employees make. DHS data shows the agency approved 77 of 110 requests in fiscal year 2019, amounting to 70 percent.

But that rate of approval appears to be notably lower than other state agencies. Fiscal year 2019 data from 20 state agencies shows an overall approval rate of about 90 percent, according to preliminary data compiled by Minnesota Management and Budget.

In a statement, DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said the agency welcomes discussion about how it can make its workplace “more accommodating, inclusive and supportive for all employees.” She noted that 550 DHS employees have a disability, and the agency has approved more than 200 accommodations since July 2017.

“We respect and value our employees and encourage them to seek reasonable accommodations,” Harpstead said. “It is our responsibility as an employer to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities can request and receive appropriate assistance in the form of a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job.”

However, DHS officials declined to discuss the specifics of any current or former employee, citing personnel restrictions.

‘RESPONSES AND EXCUSES’

As a longtime champion for people with disabilities, Mohamed (Mourssi) Alfash was well-equipped to advocate for himself when DHS hired him in April.

Alfash has profound hearing loss, which affects his speech and can make it tricky for others to understand him.

He was hired in April as an equity coordinator in the agency’s office of inspector general, a position specifically intended to monitor how DHS’ investigatory arm treats minorities, as well as those with disabilities. His advocacy and his disability were well-known; Alfash is a member of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing.

On April 7, Alfash requested 12 accommodations.

Mohamed (Mourssi) Alfash

Most were for technical devices, such as headphones and speech-to-text software that aid in communications between the deaf and non-deaf.

Alfash also said he needed to work out of a quiet room — not a cubicle among a sea of cubicles — to effectively work because he easily gets distracted by background noise, which he is unable to filter out like people with normal hearing.

For months, he got none of what he requested. Emails show that through April, May and June, both Alfash and a third-party advocate continued to press Alfash’s supervisor for action — to no avail.

“There was a wide range of responses and excuses, such as we are still working on it, budget constraints, lack of funding, seeking approval from other departments including MNIT, unavailability of the item requested, lead time for delivery, etc.,” Alfash said.

In the end, Alfash said he received a microphone and a headset in mid-July but not the software or hardware to use them. An email from his supervisor suggested several requests were tied up in a back-and-forth between DHS and MNIT, the state’s information technology agency.

As for his office space, he never got it. Alfash said his supervisor told him they were reserved for management.

Alfash was terminated in July. His situation is complicated by the fact that he was also in a dispute with his bosses over whether he was being allowed to do his job as originally described when he was hired.

Alfash filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over his treatment both related to his disability and his ultimate firing for insubordination, which he claimed was retaliation. The EEOC deemed his complaint unfounded, citing a lack of evidence, but Alfash says he’s planning to pursue the matter in court.

‘REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS’

The idea of asking for your own office because you have a disability might rub some the wrong way, acknowledges David Fenley, ADA director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, a state advisory board.

But it’s the law, he said, and for good reason.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide employees with “reasonable accommodations” if they’re necessary to allow the employee to succeed.

“It’s not a privilege,” Fenley said. “At best, these accommodations are equalizers.”

Employers in government and the private sector often struggle with accommodations, Fenley said, “either because they think it’s going to give one employee an unfair advantage or because they don’t really believe the medical condition requires the accommodation.”

That appears to be what happened with a former DHS employee who has autism, a condition that, like many involving the mind, is not always apparent.

This former employee asked to remain anonymous because what she experienced at DHS, along with other challenges related to her disability, have “fractured my professional identity enough.”

She worked at DHS for a time, left briefly, and returned in mid-2018. Upon her return, she learned that the accommodations she used to have were “no longer available,” even though they were still on record.

She resubmitted paperwork and went through the process again. Her main ask was for a job coach, to help her learn the social norms and cues of her new workplace. She said she first raised that request in her job interview and emphasized it as a “deal-breaker.”

The former employee began to receive some informal accommodations she had requested. She was given agendas before meetings and work directives in writing. And she got permission to record meetings where she presented work.

The request for a job coach, however, was never approved nor denied. As were most of her requests for accommodations.

As she waited, her performance suffered. She could not explain her learning process to colleagues without the help of a job coach. When she was trying to learn a complex database system, colleagues gave her verbal instructions, even though she cannot “absorb the information only by hearing it.”

She said her co-workers made subtle slights about her performance, and her supervisor encouraged her to disclose her disability to colleagues. She was not comfortable with that because she thought it would compromise how others saw her. The ADA generally prohibits employers from forcing employees to disclose a disability to their coworkers.

Her health began to erode because of the job environment. She went on medical leave and did not come back, resigning in October 2018.

Then she filed a complaint with the Department of Human Rights. DHS agreed to mediation and settled the case in January.

She came away from her time at DHS with the impression that managers do not know how to work with employees who have disabilities. They have set ideas on how things should be done, she said, and make little effort to understand disabilities.

“Some of the accommodations that are the most meaningful are the most difficult to obtain,” she said. “And others just seem to be negotiated in bad faith for reasons that I don’t fully understand.”

SENATE HEARING PLANNED

Sen. Abeler described the stories he has heard as “entirely unacceptable.”

Abeler and Hoffman plan to call DHS officials to testify in front of the Senate committee sometime in January. The committee will hold hearings “every month” if needed, Abeler said, until DHS shows improvement in how it treats employees who have disabilities.

“I would have thought of all the agencies, that DHS would have been a leader in reaching out to and accommodating the needs of people with disabilities,” Abeler said. “And instead, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Jeopardy for children due to Trump’s immigration policies has only begun

Nilson Canenguez, a Salvadoran in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program, hugged his adult daughter Maybelin at their home in Morningside, Md., in May. Wife/mother, Judit, is at right. Nilson Canenguez has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is the owner of a construction business. His temporary legal residency will be coming to an end with the revocation of TPS as it applies to El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti. /Associated Press

The president is set to separate more than 200,000 U.S.-born children — citizens — from their parents.

If you think the last few weeks of separating 2,300 children from their migrant parents along the southern border were heart-wrenching, imagine if 273,000 American-born children are separated from parents whose temporary protected status (TPS) is terminated. That is what could happen if the Trump administration’s decision to revoke TPS for Haitians, Salvadorans and Hondurans is allowed to take effect.

Despite President Donald Trump’s executive order reversing his policy of separating migrant families, most of those 2,300 children have not been returned to their parents. That is truly unconscionable.

More than 100 times that number of children — all U.S. citizens — will be placed in similar jeopardy if the Department of Homeland Security begins programs to deport more than 58,000 Haitians on July 22, 2019, more than 262,000 Salvadorans on Sept. 9, 2019, and 86,000 Hondurans on Jan. 5, 2020. Parents will be faced with the decision of whether to take their children — most of whom speak mainly English and know only life in this country — back to countries deemed by the State Department as not safe for travel, some with the highest homicide rates in the hemisphere.

Otherwise, parents will have to leave their children alone in the U.S. or, if they’re lucky, with relatives, or foster parents whom they may or may not know, or some with “adult sponsors” chosen by federal agencies. The only other choice available to those parents would be to hide in the shadows as undocumented aliens. That is what the ambassadors to the U.S. from El Salvador and Honduras, during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), predicted most families would attempt. And DHS would undoubtedly begin a massive hunt for them.


Protesters in front of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Miami on May 13, 2017. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The TPS provision in the Immigration Act of 1990 states that after each 18-month review, if conditions have changed — and governments can adequately handle the return of their citizens, and the returnees can return in safety — then it can be terminated. It does not say it is okay to deport them even as governments say they would still be overwhelmed or that it is still unsafe.

The Trump administration’s TPS termination decision reversed the findings of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, their secretaries of state and secretaries of homeland security, and their legal advisers. They found that conditions justified legally extending the temporary protected status after each of 14 reviews for Honduras since it was granted following Hurricane Mitch in 1999, each of 13 reviews for El Salvador following two earthquakes in 2001, and each of four reviews for Haiti following the worst earthquake in the region’s history in 2010.

The decision to terminate the temporary protected status appears blatantly political, since it contradicted the evaluation of U.S. diplomats in each of the countries who sent cables urging extension of TPS. They wrote that deportation of TPS holders and their children would endanger the fragile economies in those countries, overwhelm the countries’ abilities to provide services, lead to more violence and prompt new flows of migrants to our borders, thus undermining U.S. national security interests. The U.S. Southern Command, which covers Central and South America, came to the same conclusion.

The Department of Homeland Security also ignored these State Department travel advisories in January warning U.S. travelers to “Reconsider Travel” to those countries:

• El Salvador: Violent crime, such as murder, assault, rape and armed robbery, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics and arms trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents.

• Honduras: Violent crime, such as homicide and armed robbery, is common. Violent gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, rape, and narcotics and human trafficking, is widespread. Local police and emergency services lack the resources to respond effectively to serious crime.

• Haiti: Reconsider travel to Haiti due to crime and civil unrest. Violent crime, such as armed robbery, is common. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents or emergencies. Protests, tire burning and road blockages are frequent and often spontaneous.

Various studies show that more than 80 percent of TPS beneficiaries work, pay taxes and contribute an estimated $690 million each year into Social Security. It would cost an estimated $3 billion to deport them, and the U.S. economy would lose about $4.5 billion each year in gross domestic product.

Finally, U.S. policy, begun under Obama and a Republican Congress, and continued, according to Vice President Mike Pence, in the Trump administration, sees that the best way to reduce the “push” factors on illegal migration is to assist Central American nations to strengthen their economies, democratic institutions and law enforcement.

Sending back hundreds of thousands of people to those countries, when the governments themselves have said they cannot handle it, undermines that policy. And placing at risk 273,000 U.S. citizen children — some still being nursed — undermines our values.

The immediate answer is for the president to reverse the DHS termination decisions. The best answer for those U.S. citizen children is for Congress to authorize permanent residency for their parents now and a pathway to citizenship — they have been here for as long as two decades and have demonstrated they can contribute to our future — as immigrant parents in this country have done for almost 250 years.

By Mark L. Schneider | July 6, 2018

Source: washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/07/06/trump-is-set-to-separate-more-than-200000-u-s-born-children-from-their-parents/?utm_term=.cd5e835482d0

___________

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former director of the U.S. Peace Corps and former head of Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.

For Minnesota immigrants with dreams of playing pro soccer, club fees are a major hurdle

On a recent Friday evening, over a dozen young immigrant players from Ethiopia, Mexico and Somalia showed up in various European soccer jerseys at the East Phillips Park in Minneapolis.

All of them wanted to play, but the soccer field could only hold 12 people at once. So they divided themselves into three teams — with two groups playing against each other, and the third one waiting outside to replace whichever team lost first.

They had no coach to supervise them and no referee to enforce the rules of the game. Instead, the players assigned their own positions and called their own fouls. The system seemed to work well until a goalie, who asked to play forward, was left with two options: leave the field or remain a goalkeeper. (He chose the latter.)

Though each player wore a random jersey, which made it difficult to differentiate between the teams, it was easy to spot Yimer Woldeyes, an Ethiopian-born teenager who dominated the midfield with his speed, near-perfect ball control and masterful passes.

Even with such skills, though, Woldeyes — like many of his immigrant and refugee friends — has never really imagined playing in professional leagues in Minnesota. That isn’t because he doesn’t want to play competitively; it’s because he knows that getting there requires a lot more money than he has available.

“To play for a big team, you have to go through a lot of training,” said Woldeyes, a junior at Minneapolis South High School. “You have to have a good coach. You have to be in a good club. But these things are too expensive. It’s like $2,000 a year. We can’t afford that.”

Expensive training costs

Woldeyes is among thousands of young immigrant and refugee players who came to the U.S. with some soccer skills that could put them on a path to a professional soccer career.

Sometimes, these youngsters develop an interest in making a living as soccer players after their arrival in the U.S. For example, when Aweis Hassan, a Somali immigrant who was also at the East Phillips soccer field on Friday, came here in 2013, he learned for the first time that some people make a career as soccer players in America.

“I heard that you get money for playing soccer,” said Hassan, a senior at South High. “I didn’t even know you could do that.”

During most of his time here, Hassan has been involved in soccer activities. Like Woldeyes, he plays for the school’s soccer team and he shows up to the East Phillips field every day for practice.

But none of these activities provides him and his friends with the formal training they need to be physically and mentally prepared for competitive youth leagues — which is the reason Hassan and Woldeyes think they will never make it in professional soccer.

Indeed, former head coach of the Minnesota Thunder, Buzz Lagos, knows too well the experience Hassan and Woldeyes describe. Between 2005 and 2015, Lagos served as the soccer coach of St. Paul’s Higher Ground Academy, where he trained hundreds of East African immigrant and refugee students. “They had good soccer experience in Africa,” he said. “So it was a nice way to work with them and get them better and better through some coaching. We developed some very good teams.”

But Lagos also encountered a number of challenges while training the students. First, the students were from low-income families who couldn’t afford the fees to maintain a strong soccer club. Second, he had to provide the transportation to get students to and from games because their parents weren’t able to do so.

Buzz Lagos

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Between 2005 and 2015, Buzz Lagos served as the soccer coach of St. Paul’s Higher Ground Academy, where he trained hundreds of East African immigrant and refugee students.

For affluent American families whose children participate in formal soccer clubs, he said, the experience is much different. The parents usually pay an annual fee of $4,000-$6,000 a year for each child and provide transportation and other needed services to the teams.

In return, their children receive advanced training and a chance to play in major tournaments across the nation. This advantage could help them gain the attention of professional soccer club managers who are recruiting players for their teams — a chance that Woldeyes can never find at the East Phillips soccer field.

Alternative clubs

In response to that practice, former U.S. women’s national team goalie Hope Solo criticized in June the U.S. Soccer Federation for imposing high fees to play in soccer clubs and thus excluding people of color and poor people from playing soccer competitively.

“We have alienated the Hispanic communities,” she said on a podcast. “We have alienated our Black communities. We have alienated the underrepresented communities, even rural communities.”

While expensive coaching costs cut short many immigrants’ dreams of playing in professional soccer leagues, it hasn’t taken away their passion for the sport. In fact, each day during the summer, hundreds of immigrants and refugees pack soccer fields throughout the Twin Cities metro area.

In the last two decades — when Minnesota started to see an increase in the number of African, Asian and Latino immigrants and refugees — private companies, public agencies and nonprofit organizations have set up dozens of new soccer fields in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, for example, owns eight synthetic turf fields, seven of which were constructed in the last 10 years. They include half-sized fields for young players and full-sized ones for adults.

These soccer fields, as well as those at Augsburg University and the University of St. Thomas, have become hubs for Ethiopian, Somali, Hmong and Latino immigrants, who hold tournaments for their communities.

On Sunday, female players from Mexico, Ecuador and Somalia competed in the tournament of the Fútbol Mundial league, which is among dozens of similar leagues organized for ethnic communities across the state.

“A lot of people really need this,” said Moises Hernandez, owner of the league. “They can’t participate in major clubs because they’re expensive. But this gives them the space to do what they like to do.”

Fútbol Mundial league

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
On Sunday, female players from Mexico, Ecuador and Somalia competed in the tournament of the Fútbol Mundial league.

This same reason also brought Woldeyes and others to the East Phillips Park field that Friday evening. Since a competitive game in the Fútbol Mundial tournament was approaching, they wanted to be prepared.

On the field, Woldeyes is well respected, mainly because of his soccer skills, which have been the culmination of years-long persistence practice and endless passion for the sport. At age 7, he started learning to play soccer from his older brother in Ethiopia.

Since he arrived in the U.S. three years ago, Woldeyes has been trying to make a career as a professional soccer player in Minnesota. Though Woldeyes doubts he will ever see his dreams become a reality, he continues to show up to the field on a daily basis and sharpen his skills.

“We have the talent,” he said speaking of his fate in the soccer profession, “but we just don’t have the chance to make it big because we don’t have money.”

By Ibrahim Hirsi

Source: www.minnpost.com/new-americans/2018/07/minnesota-immigrants-dreams-playing-pro-soccer-club-fees-are-major-hurdle