FREETOWN — When Jacqueline Ashley brought her developmentally disabled son to Crystal Springs, he was barely sleeping or eating. At age 5, he was hyperactive and too strong to dress without help from another adult.
Her son, Edward, known as Eddie, remains nonverbal today but calm and upbeat at age 36, a longtime resident at the Assonet facility, which Ashley credits with providing them both with a better life.
Many people in the region know nothing about Crystal Springs, says Ashley, which she considered a real shame until a few weeks ago. Now friends in her hometown of Rochester are approaching her at the grocery store to ask: “What is going on at that school?”
Crystal Springs, a nonprofit that provides education, therapy, and a place to live for children and adults with profound developmental impairments, became the subject of unwanted public attention on Nov. 20 when the state auditor’s office, as part of a heightened focus on nonprofits, released a financial review of the facility with a statement headlined, “Audit finds over $500K in questionable and unallowable costs at Freetown nonprofit.”
That announcement triggered public suspicion of the facility and, within the tight-knit community of families and friends attached to Crystal Springs, deep concern.
“It was like two black eyes for a place that should not have any. It is the best around. My son is in a good home. I sleep nights, I do, because of Crystal Springs,” said Ashley, a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors as well as an independent organization, Parents and Friends of Crystal Springs.
Following the audit report, Spencer Moore, chief executive officer of Crystal Springs, fired off a letter to families and employees to explain what he says was an “extremely sensational” headline from the auditor’s office.
In an interview last week, Moore said the necessary accounting corrections were made months ago.
“I was quite disappointed in the headline, if you will, because it seemed to indicate we were doing things completely wrong,” he said, adding the facility, which serves about 110 disabled children and adults, performed extremely well in its own internal audit in November. “I am happy to say we are a fiscally healthy agency.”
The state auditor’s office agrees.
Spokesman Christopher Thompson last week characterized the audit findings, which covered a roughly two-year period from July 2009 to June 2011, as unexceptional.
“There is no wrongdoing identified in this audit,” he said. “What this audit shows is a couple of areas where Crystal Springs can improve its operations and be more in step with state guidelines,” he said.
The audit identified a series of financial issues, with the most significant involving nearly $360,000 in “questionable and unallowable costs” because the agency secured equipment and services from a local business without following a competitive bidding process; nearly $91,000 in state funding intended to pay for service provision that was spent on two agency vans, air-conditioning equipment, and flooring supplies; and questionable employee compensation in the promotion of an employee to a new position with a salary that more than doubled, from about $26,000 to $65,000. Also problematic, the audit said, were about $23,800 in fringe benefits in employee loans and personal use of agency vehicles, and $13,200 in rental income not used to offset state programming costs. It recommended that the facility reimburse the state $71,000.
But Moore said the audit points to disorganized accounting that occurred before his arrival two years ago. The $360,000 was spent for the benefit of residents, he said, even if the agency failed at the time to follow a formal bidding process or to categorize the expenses correctly. In 94 instances, Crystal Springs hired Thermo Mechanical Systems Corp., a local company whose chief executive officer sits on the Crystal Springs board of directors.
“He came out any time of day or night to repair something — can you imagine at 3 a.m. trying to find three bids? It is rather ludicrous,” said Moore, adding the agency now solicits bids for services and equipment costing more than $2,500.
He said the issue about a particular employee’s compensation is now outdated because the position is no longer filled, and the other shortcomings identified in the audit involved misaligned accounting procedures since remedied.
“There was absolutely nothing fraudulent or illegal in what was done,” he said. Crystal Springs is negotiating with the state on the requested reimbursement.
Moore said it pained him to see Crystal Springs, a campus with 16 residences and about 65 percent of residents in wheelchairs and 95 percent unable to speak, gain attention the way it did.
“I give my position my heart and soul, and I just felt like I was cleaning up after the elephants,” after the audit release, he said. “And that is not what this is about.”
For Earl McKeen, president of the Parents and Friends of Crystal Springs, the facility provides an “open and caring and nurturing environment” for his daughter, Susan, 43. “You can stop in any time, day or night, unlike many places. It’s really positive,” he said.
James S. Rebello, a board member for three years, said the state audit amounted to documentation errors, now corrected — but, meanwhile, incredible things are happening at Crystal Springs that people know nothing about.
“What we have here at Crystal Springs in Assonet is one of the best-kept secrets in New England in relation to the care of children and adults who are profoundly developmentally disabled,” he said. “The families who come here have nothing but praise for this facility. It gives the people they love the best opportunity for life that they can have. Some of the progress you see in these individuals is unbelievable.”