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Checks and balances: Keeping people honest

Don’t take resumes and other documentation on face value

Consider the scenario: a probationer reports to his probation officer that a contracted private treatment provider insists on conducting counseling sessions in locations all over town – never at the address of the office on file with the government agency.

He also expresses doubt about the quality of treatment being provided: that sessions are not much more than a verbal check-up with the pressure of obtaining a signature on an attendance roster. The probationer reports the session doesn’t last very long, and that he “doesn’t get very much out of the appointment.”

Later, after interviewing the probationer to get further details, and after a review of documents, the probation officer discovers the counselor being paid to administer treatment lacks sufficient credentials to do so.

As pressure to form public and private partnerships increases, a need has emerged requiring agencies to more closely monitor private providers and establish sound check and balance systems, to ensure contract compliance and payment for certain services designated for offenders is accurate. When systems are weak and volume is high, it often becomes difficult to keep up, and staffers tend to take short cuts to keep the paper moving. They often take reports and signatures on face value and just generally assume someone else or some other system is in place to ensure validity.

Typically when funding streams are established, regulations are expected to kick in, governing approved procedures. However, even with the mostly tightly managed controls, small weaknesses grow and reconciling the services with billing can quickly become a challenge. Most professionals tend to have confidence in credentials presented to them, as well as résumés, degrees, and titles, and just pay the bills, no questions asked.

Later, when red flags arise, there is still hesitancy about pressing for further authentication. Why? Because we just have trouble believing providers would foolishly risk their reputations and integrity for money.

Some private service providers struggle to maintain certifications and accreditations. Their staff are often poorly paid and turnover is high. Just when counselors and therapists are trained in office procedures, as well as ethics and professionalism, they may be wooed away to work somewhere else. Training replacements becomes a burden, often with sloppy outcomes; mistakes are made, and outright deception and fraud creep in. After time goes by, and irregularities go unchecked, the guilty party becomes desensitized, and grows to believe billing practices are not being scrutinized.

How can everyone be kept honest? It is the responsibility of government agencies to plainly lay out the scope of work and compliance requirements. Periodic, informal spot checking is necessary, as well as formal auditing exercises. When questionable practices arise, immediate action is called for.

It is important to emphasize most providers offer important programs and treatment, utilize professionally credentialed staff, and maintain stellar billing practices. However, money is tight, and fiscal responsibility means ensuring when bills are paid appropriate services are being provided in return.

Moreover, following up when offenders report questionable practices is required, and an important first step to authenticate contract compliance.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.