TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Established agencies that serve the foster and adoption community in the Tucson area are warning families and individuals to be wary of a group that has been collecting donations.
You may have seen tables outside local restaurants or big box retailers with someone asking for support for Southern AZ Foster Kids. The group claims to raise money to organize events for foster children and their families.
Multiple interactions with the people at these tables left some concerned about the practices of Southern AZ Foster Kids, according to posts on social media.
Mea Han Fajardo, an administrator for a couple of foster Facebook groups, works for Grace Retreat Foster Care and Adoption Services.
She couldn't believe there was a new agency in Tucson that so many knew so little about.
"Nobody just pops up," she said. "There's a whole process they have to go through."
She is referring to licensing through the state, or at the very least, establishing a relationship with the Foster and Adoptive Council of Tucson.
FACT is comprised of 18 local and state agencies that collaborate on care and services for foster and adoptive families.
When reached for comment about Southern AZ Foster Kids, the council provided the following statement:
Bruce Landau, listed as the fundraising manager for Southern AZ Foster Kids, insists this organization has done nothing fraudulent.
Since speaking with Tucson News Now, he and his assistant Kristin Livingston have reached out to FACT and other foster-associated agencies in Tucson to potentially work together, but not before the following red flags, admitted mistakes and proposed changes.
Misunderstanding, money owed
A May event at Funtasticks in Tucson attracted dozens of people, but the tab hasn't been settled months later.
The outstanding payment prompted a fraud report to the Tucson Police Department, according to department spokesman Sgt. Pete Dugan.
Dugan said the case has been passed along to the Pima County Attorney's Office.
Landau claims it was a misunderstanding on his part about what sort of access would be available to the families in his group. He said the situation would be cleared up by Monday, Aug. 20.
Protecting foster children
What has outraged families more than the money is the publicity surrounding events like this.
Along with promoting events for foster children at the donation tables, Southern AZ Foster Kids has rallied support on its Facebook page. It includes pictures of foster children from the event at Funtasticks.
Lin Leclair and her husband have fostered dozens of children over the years. They volunteer their time with local and state organizations focused on supporting foster and adoptive families.
She said making the location of foster children known to the public could put them in danger.
"They're in care because, somehow, their life has been full with some sort of trauma," Leclair said.
Livingston acknowledged the trauma, admitting the organization made a mistake by sharing pictures of foster children at the Funtasticks event and promoting the time and location of another event.
"Honestly we're...that's one of the things we feel really bad about," she said. "We do not want to be putting children in danger."
Making amends, changes
Landau stressed they only have the best of intentions in supporting this community.
The group is part of a nonprofit registered in California and Landau is based out of the Phoenix area.
Families in Tucson told Tucson News Now they curious why this new group is fundraising in the Old Pueblo.
Landau provided multiple reasons.
He said a woman was operating a similar outfit locally and he replaced her. He could not explain what the woman did or what his connection to her was.
There is a need for the fundraising and event-planning services for the foster community in Tucson, according to Landau. Though he couldn't explain their research, Landau said it showed southern Arizona was in need. He added that every area is, too.
"I can't say how I knew it," he said. "I feel in every city this is ... need to help children everywhere you go."
Livingston added she knew several people who work at Arizona Department of Child Safety. She said they described being overwhelmed with cases and in need of social outlets like the ones Southern AZ Foster Kids claims to provide.
Making amends, changes
A day at Reid Park Zoo was going to be the next opportunity for Southern AZ Foster Kids to provide the fun, friendly social gathering Landau said they've done repeated times in California.
Originally set for July, the event was pushed back to Saturday, Aug. 18. Livingston said it's not happening after so much outcry about the potential for security risks and the foster children.
Landau said he's considering redirecting the money originally meant for the zoo trip.
"Maybe if these foster facilities don't want us to do it, I even thought about it last night ... if they don't want us to do events, I'll donate the money to the organizations that need it for the kids," he said.
A new event in the works won't be publicly promoted, according to Landau.
Southern AZ Foster Kids plans to work with established agencies moving forward, but Landau said he will shift focus to supporting special needs individuals if the group continues to feel any push back from the foster community.
Meanwhile, Leclair said she is filing a complaint with the IRS. Landau said he's finishing up the paperwork for the organization's taxes.
"I've never seen anything like this in the 30 years I've been a tax professional," Leclair said.
The people collecting money at Southern AZ Foster Kids donation tables are known as ambassadors.
Landau said some are sub-contractors and others are employees. He could not provide a number of how many are employed by his organization.
Anyone who has questionable interactions with Southern AZ Foster Kids can file a complaint with the the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona.
The Department of Child Safety has a list of qualified foster care tax credit charities in Arizona.