Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2013
Renee Moncito was a convicted thief and forger. She ran a foster care agency that was one of the most cited by state inspectors for lapses in care, including cases in which children were beaten, locked in their rooms for days or subjected to other mistreatment.
Yet year after year, the agency was re-approved by state and county officials, growing into one of the largest private foster family agencies in Los Angeles County, responsible for thousands of children over the years.
Wings of Refuge is now being terminated not because of abuse but after officials determined it had mismanaged millions in taxpayer dollars — a situation that has raised concerns about the county’s ability to adequately monitor such groups.
The $3-million-a-year contract with Wings of Refuge was canceled after the group failed to file its financial forms for charitable organizations for three years and lost its tax-exempt status, a requirement for foster care agencies in California.
For years, state regulators had flagged Wings of Refuge as being at financial risk. The agency had accumulated $458,000 in delinquent payroll taxes and was more than $2 million in debt, according to licensing records.
Moncito, Wings of Refuge’s chief executive, defended her record and blamed her agency’s financial troubles on not receiving enough government money to care for children. “I have given way more than I have received,” she said in a recent interview.
The county has begun to shift the nearly 200 foster children from Wings of Refuge to other agencies.
Wings’ termination, effective Oct. 31, followed questions from The Times about Moncito’s criminal history and the agency’s record of physical and financial abuses.
In 1981, Moncito was convicted of grand theft and forgery related to passing bad checks.
Years of financial struggle followed her release, and personal bankruptcy records show that in 1998 she had $55 in savings and was $85,000 debt. Moncito founded Wings of Refuge that year and was awarded tax-exempt status.
Wings of Refuge grew quickly, eventually caring for more than 1,100 children over a recent three-year period.
Moncito also launched other enterprises: a Wings of Refuge branch in Texas, a drug treatment program in Los Angeles and a used-clothing business that sold items to foster children.
In August, Wings was cited by the state for making “false claims” to hide some of the agency’s financial problems.
Tracie Hicks, who was a Wings of Refuge foster parent for nearly a decade, said Moncito exploited the system to make money off of foster children.
“Wings of Refuge never should have existed in the first place,” Hicks said. “They are poverty pimps — you know, people who sell out other people’s misfortune to make money.”
The financial problems at Wings of Refuge could have been discovered earlier had there been stricter monitoring by the government. Officials acknowledge they do not have the staff to regularly scrutinize an industry of private foster family providers responsible for 15,000 children statewide and $350 million in taxpayer dollars annually.