Family Connections Nonprofit to Close Doors Amid Scandal

Former executive director wanted on criminal charges

Family Connections Nonprofit to Close Doors Amid Scandal

Where in the world is Louanne Aponte?

That’s what the directors of the nonprofit Family Connections would like to know – as would the Travis County DA’s Office.

The agency helps about 32,000 families a year in Central Texas with child-raising issues. Today, Family Connections announced it would close its doors at the end of April.

This comes just one working day after Family Connections board president Vielka Ridley told the Chronicle that Aponte, its former executive director, was being investigated for financial “irregularities.”

Ridley says Family Connections is missing a substantial sum of money. Ridley was unable to say exactly how much, but a source close to the organization said it may be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Travis County Assistant District Attorney Gregg Cox reports that two arrest warrants have been issued for Aponte on charges of tampering with government records. Family Connections receives funding from a variety of private and public sources, including city, state, and federal grants. Ridley said Family Connections has also filed a civil suit against Aponte.

However, Aponte’s whereabouts are uncertain. Cox says he’s “comfortable” in saying that Aponte has probably left the United States, “but I can’t confirm it.” Ridley says she has “no idea” if Aponte has left, but a source close to the organization told the Chronicle that Aponte’s husband, Marco, is Venezuelan, and speculated that she may have fled to that country.

A phone call to the Aponte’s southwest Austin residence was answered by someone, apparently male, who offered to take a message for Louanne Aponte. When asked if he could answer questions, the person said, “Not really,” and hung up.

“At the end of February, we were contacted by auditors that were here doing a routine audit of some contracts, and they called the board to come down to Family Connections for a meeting because they wanted to share with us some irregularities they found,” says Ridley. “They shared with us that the previous audits that were submitted by an independent accountant were fraudulent … and there was some discrepancy in the financial records.

“At that point, we contacted [Aponte] and put her on leave that Friday, the last day of February [the 26th],” Ridley says. “By Friday afternoon, about 5, the auditors gave us a verbal summary of what they’d found, indicating that several years back, it appears, there had been some irregularities. On March 1, we placed her on leave without pay.”

Ridley says the board then called in more auditors, accountants, and legal counsel to further examine the records, and expect that work to be complete sometime this month.

It got worse, alleges Ridley: “When they [the accountants] contacted the company that was supposed to be the independent auditor [that had prepared the allegedly fraudulent audits], they said they had not ever done an audit for this agency.

“We’ve been going through the financial records here, what we could find, and trying to recreate as much as we could,” says Ridley. “It appears like every single day we’re finding more discrepancies. … We turned our records over to the DA.”

Among those discrepancies: Ridley says Aponte misrepresented her education, claiming a master’s degree from St. Edwards University. It turned out Aponte only had a bachelor’s in economics, a fact the Chronicle confirmed with St. Ed’s.

On March 11, Ridley says, Family Connections received an e-mail from Aponte announcing her retirement. Family Connection’s internal bookkeeper has also resigned, although she is not implicated in the scandal.

Assistant DA Cox said he can’t share many details of the ongoing investigation, but said bond for Aponte has been set at $15,000 per charge, and “we expect to add more charges.”

Asked to briefly describe the work that Family Connections does, Ridley says, “Support services to children and the adults in their lives. Anywhere from child care resource and referrals to vouchers for families that are low income, families that are homeless or previously homeless while they’re getting on their feet and starting to work. We have a very large unit called Parents of Newborns.

“You know how they say, ‘Children are born without a manual’? Well, we actually have a manual. We have staff that go out to the hospitals and meet with new moms within the first three days of delivery, and they’re there to provide support to those new families.”

Other issues Family Connections helps with include breastfeeding, emotional stability, and postpartum mental health counseling, and the staff then also does follow-up visits after the family leaves the hospital. The organization won Austin Chronicle Best of Austin awards in 1996 (Best Thing the Government’s Done for Your Kids) and 2006 (Best Toy Library).

“We [have] actively, since day one, been working with the DA and our legal counsel, and now with our funders, to see if this goes a different direction,” Ridley says. “Hopefully other agencies can take up those programs and those services can continue without interruption to the families.” Ridley says thus far, there has been no interruption in services.

“This is tragic, beyond tragic,” Ridley says. “It’s a sad day. … It’s a tragedy for a lot of the families.”

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