As District residents fill out their tax forms this season, they have an option to chip in part of their refund to help at-risk children.
But the nonprofit group that is supposed to receive those contributions dissolved two years ago, and the money collected through the tax donation program has not been spent since.
The Public Fund for Drug Prevention and Children at Risk, established in 1991, is apparently in limbo and sitting on $102,000 that can’t be used. After The Washington Post inquired about the fund, elected officials began looking for ways to spend the money.
The name of the fund appears on tax forms and online tax preparation services as one of three opportunities for residents to steer a chunk of their refund, or their tax bill, to a preferred cause, including the city’s efforts to lobby for statehood and the Anacostia River cleanup.
A decade ago, then-D.C. Council member Harry Thomas got legislation passed to direct the money collected to the DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a nonprofit meant to keep children out of trouble by funding after-school programs and other initiatives.
Controversy overshadowed the organization’s purpose.
Thomas went to prison for embezzling money from the nonprofit for a luxury SUV and other perks for himself. Exorbitant and improper staff spending bankrupted the DC Trust, which received millions in taxpayer funding from various sources, including the tax checkoff, and it dissolved in April 2016.
No money from the fund for drug prevention and at-risk children has been distributed since.
The law establishing the tax-checkoff fund requires annual financial reports to the mayor and D.C. Council, a measure to make sure taxpayers’ voluntary contributions are properly spent. Neither branch of government could produce those reports at the request of The Post.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) acknowledged he overlooked the tax checkoff when writing a law last year to replace DC Trust with a new Office on Youth Outcomes and Grants.
Natalie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, said last week that the agency was awaiting guidance from the mayor and council on how to spend money earmarked for the now defunct organization.
Olivia Dedner, a spokeswoman for the Office of the City Administrator, said in a statement, “The Bowser administration remains committed to honoring the financial commitments the Trust made to programs that support District youth and families and will work with the Council to enact legislation to transfer the funds to support programming in the Safer Stronger DC Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement that is in keeping with this mission.”
Grosso would like the money for the Office of Youth Outcomes and Grants. He also wants to know why the finance office didn’t alert the council to the fact that a fund for children was sitting idle.
“We are going to try to fix it so that it will go to the new commission on out-of-school time and can go out the door,” Grosso said.
The $102,000 in the fund, which does not include donations made since the tax season began this year, is a sliver of the additional $20 million advocates are seeking to fund the youth-outcomes office.
But advocates say it can still make a difference.
Maggie Riden, president and chief executive of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates, said the unspent money in the fund for at-risk children could pay for after-school programs for 100 students for an entire school year or a six-week summer program for 500.
“If there can be a place that provides children with structured activities that helps them connect with caring adults in their community, I think we can all agree that’s a better option than sending a kid to sit home in front of a TV, a video game or YouTube,” Riden said.
This isn’t the first time the tax checkoff for at-risk children has come under scrutiny.
In 1998, a report in The Post revealed how the fund operated with little supervision and without following basic requirements of government spending.