After financial scandal, Kansas foster care provider holds ‘head high’ and focuses on good work

By: - December 25, 2020 9:00 am

J.T. Burnley’s experience at a Saint Francis Ministries boys home in Ellsworth helped him harness the talent that would make him an international dressage competitor. (Submitted)

TOPEKA — J.T. Burnley says he owes everything to Saint Francis Ministries.

Like others whose lives have intersected with the Salina-based foster care provider, he was sorry to see the organization “catapulted into limelight,” as he puts it, by the financial scandal surrounding recently deposed leadership.

Kansas Reflector first reported on an investigator’s conclusion that former Saint Francis CEO Robert “Father Bobby” Smith made personal charges with the nonprofit’s credit cards, hid financial losses from his board of directors, and made inappropriate investments in Bill Whymark’s software company.

“I can only hold my head high when I hear that because I can stand before you as a grown man and say that is not Saint Francis,” Burnley said. “I will be indebted to Saint Francis every day of my life. It changed my life. I owe my development as an equestrian.”

As a boy in the 1970s, Burnley was removed from his small-town Louisiana home, where his violent father inflicted physical and emotional pain, and placed by court order at a Saint Francis boys home in Ellsworth. Now 60, Burnley is an international dressage competitor who trains horses through the company he owns and operates with his wife in southwest Kentucky.

In Ellsworth, Burnley benefited from an equine therapy program. He found it easier to connect with horses and people, and the staff helped him harness the talent that would help him excel at dressage. For the unfamiliar, Burnley described the Olympic sport as “ballet with a horse.” He has competed in Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, Holland, Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“What sparked this interest was the time I spent at Saint Francis,” Burnley said. “It was learning how to be responsible for yourself and instead of cower away from everything, or live in fear, to hold your head high and be respectful of other people.”

One time, after trying to protect his brother, Burnley’s father beat him so badly he had to lay in the bathtub with epsom salts for three days so his bloody wounds from his shoulders to his knees wouldn’t get infected.

In his final year at Saint Francis, he got a job at a ranch owned by the father of a Saint Francis counselor, Cory Rathbun.

“I remember seeing Cory say, ‘I love you, Dad,’ and hug his dad. And I’d never seen that in my life,” Burnley said. “I thought, ‘Holy Jesus. I can’t imagine having that kind of relationship with my father.’ It’s kind of terrifying and kind of unbelievable and kind of just hurts. Just completely earth shattering.”

The experience, he said, changed his life.

Rathbun’s wife, Cheryl, is now part of the Saint Francis leadership team working to restore focus on work to help children and families. The organization employs 1,600 people in six states, and serves more than 10,000 children and families.

Cheryl Rathbun, chief clinical officer, has spent 43 years at Saint Francis. She said employees need time to process the details of the investigative report that led to the departure of Smith, general counsel David Schaffer and chief operating officer Tom Blythe.

“It’s just hard,” she said. “I don’t know how else to say it. It’s just hard.”

Her message to staff: “These folks are not a reflection of the work you do, and what you do is much more important than what they’ve done. Keep doing that good work.”

Trish Bryant, vice president for residential services, has been at Saint Francis for 35 years. She said her focus is on working tirelessly to ensure children and families are well taken care of.

“I have experienced a range of emotions over the past month as we’ve worked through this, and I think disappointed is probably where I spend time — feeling just disappointed in that this has happened,” Bryant said.

Saint Francis’ board of directors immediately suspended leadership in October when newly hired chief financial officer Lora Winchell made them aware of the organization’s severe financial problems. The board hired an attorney from Kansas City, Kansas, to investigate her concerns.

The board was unaware of the amounts of money Smith authorized on software and miracle food projects that he had explained would someday turn a profit, or that he purchased $65,000 worth of Chicago Cubs tickets with the intent to flip them for more money. He didn’t tell the board that he knew a five-year contract signed with Nebraska in 2019 would cost the organization millions.

William Clark, interim CEO at Saint Francis Ministries, says he is working to promote a culture of integrity: “Do the right thing at the right time for the right reason when nobody’s looking.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Cash flow problems reached a tipping point this spring when Intrust Bank refused to expand a $10 million line of credit for an organization that appeared to have no way of becoming solvent. At one point, in an email to Blythe, Smith proposed canceling the contract with the state of Kansas to save money — a move that would have jeopardized the care for 3,100 foster children. Instead, the nonprofit received a $10 million loan through the federal paycheck protection program.

Interim CEO William Clark said the new leadership team has worked to restore financial stability by working out new deals with Kansas and Nebraska, and reining in spending. The organization is on pace to be cash flow neutral by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in six months, he said.

“The work that’s been done to move the organization forward in a two-month timeframe is absolutely incredible if you think about it,” Clark said.

In addition to implementing new controls to prevent another scandal, Clark said he is promoting a culture of integrity within Saint Francis.

His mantra: “You do the right thing at the right time for the right reason when nobody’s looking.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.