Facing financial strain, Saint Francis Ministries shuts down services for refugees

Yeni Telles, director of International Ministries for Saint Francis Ministries, speaks about her immigration story at World Refugee Day in June. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Saint Francis Ministries is eliminating its support network for refugees in Kansas, citing financial strains within the organization and a desire to focus resources on foster care services.

Employees learned of the decision on Nov. 20, a day after the organization fired top leadership at the conclusion of an investigation into undisclosed mismanagement problems.

Morgan Rothenberger, a spokeswoman for Saint Francis, said the organization was eliminating seven positions within its International Ministries division, and another 19 related positions in administrative areas. The division served refugees in the Wichita area.

“Recent changes placed a financial strain on our efforts with this work,” Rothenberger said. “Even though we were able to shift employees to other work supporting the refugee and immigrant community, the program’s sustainability became challenging.”

Saint Francis was one of a handful of organizations in Kansas providing integration services for legal immigrants fleeing violence and other hardships. Those services include helping refugees find a place to live, employment, training, and language assistance.

Forrest Ehmke, a volunteer for Saint Francis’s migration program in Wichita, says he worries that schools and other organizations will be left to serve refugees, including their children, without any additional funding. He said the community also stands to lose about $410,000 in federal grants because of the decision by Saint Francis.

Ehmke said he has provided furniture for families, and helped with transportation, job applications, school enrollment and general problem solving.

“This is an unspeakable tragedy to families who are fleeing violence, have been vetted many times over prior to authorization to come as a refugee and are learning how to be Americans,” Ehmke said. “This means that there will be limited or no support from an agency to support them with all the school-related issues of the year. There will be limited support regarding employment should they lose employment secondary to COVID-19. There will be limited support to assist in becoming good citizens, which they all wish to be.”

Federal funding for the refugee program has been undercut in recent years by President Donald Trump’s orders to reduce the number of refugees who are allowed into the country each year.

The cap was set at 85,000 during President Barack Obama’s final year in office, and dropped to 18,000 this year. In October, Trump lowered the number of refugees who could resettle in the United States in 2021 to just 15,000. The actual number of refugees falls below the cap each year because of bureaucratic restrictions.

Saint Francis informed staff last month that the Rev. Robert Smith and CEO Tom Blythe wouldn’t return to the organization following an investigation into a whistleblower’s report on mismanagement. William Clark, who had been chief of staff, is serving as interim president and CEO.

As the organization faced “a variety of challenges” in recent weeks, Rothenberger said, the leadership team began realigning work to meet its core mission of providing foster care and prevention services for children and families. Saint Francis is the largest private contractor for the state foster care system.

“This has been a very difficult decision because of the impact on the immigrant and refugee community and our employees,” Clark said. “All of these employees have been committed to serving children and families and have done excellent work for Saint Francis. We are working closely with stakeholders so they understand our commitment to keeping Saint Francis strong.”