Wednesday, June 20, 2001

"Is Teen Challenge A Legitimate Group?" by Honolulu Star-Bulletin Journalist, June Watanabe - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Kokua Line

By June Watanabe

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Is Teen Challenge
a legitimate group?

Question: I recently read the Star-Bulletin story about the minister and his wife who ran Teen Challenge being indicted for fraud. In April someone came to our home in Hawaii Kai and solicited money for Teen Challenge. I wrote a check to them, which has since been cashed. Is there really a Teen Challenge, or is this a scam?Answer: Teen Challenge Hawaii is part of an international Teen Challenge organization and continues to operate in Honolulu, although the state Attorney General's Office last month brought charges against its executive director, the Rev. John Elleson, and his wife, Suzanne.
The Ellesons are accused of fraudulently obtaining welfare and food stamp benefits from the state in connection with the operation of their organization.
The case against the Ellesons was investigated by the state Department of Human Services.
Teen Challenge is a religious organization designed to help people recover from drug and alcohol addiction, said James Barker, supervisor for the department's investigation division.
"Is it a legitimate organization?" Barker asked, in response to our question. "Yes, it is. Is it a regulated one? No, because they are not a licensed drug and alcohol treatment facility."
Teen Challenge does not need a license because it does not actually provide treatment for drug and alcohol abuse at its facility, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said.
We tried contacting the national organization but got no response, then called Teen Challenge Hawaii and was referred to local attorney Dennis O'Connor.
O'Connor said the organization is "operating and in the business of taking teenagers or people just a little above teenage and cleaning them up as far as drug use" and other things are concerned.
"To my knowledge it is not a scam," O'Connor said, although he said he did not know that the organization was not a licensed treatment facility.
One handy resource to check on various charities or companies is the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii, which has reports on both members and nonmembers (call 536-6956).
Teen Challenge Hawaii was started in December 1999 as a local charity, according to the BBB's recorded message on the organization. However, because it did not provide requested information about its programs, finances, governance and fund-raising policies, "the bureau does not have sufficient information to issue a philanthropic advisory service report."
The BBB, which "does not evaluate the worthiness of a charitable program," said information provided by Teen Challenge's executive director "stated that Teen Challenge is under the Assemblies of God Church, and they annually are certified through them."
The BBB files show one complaint against Teen Challenge and a response that "they are governed by a religious church order and are guided by confidentiality laws and are unable to address the issues raised in the complaint."

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Thursday, May 31, 2001

Teen Challenge Program Director's Steal Clients Benefits - Honolulu Star-Bulletin Thursday, May 31, 2001

Thursday, May 31, 2001

Minister, wife
indicted for
welfare fraud

The Teen Challenge rehab
program operators stand accused
of stealing their clients' benefits

By Debra Barayuga

A Mililani couple who ran the Christian-oriented nonprofit Teen Challenge have been indicted by an Oahu grand jury for fraudulently obtaining welfare and food stamp benefits from the state.The Rev. John D. Elleson, 39, and his wife, Suzanne M. Elleson, 39, were charged yesterday with five counts of second-degree theft and one count of first-degree theft as accomplices.
Circuit Judge Richard Perkins confirmed bail at $10,000 for John Elleson and $5,000 for Suzanne Elleson.
Teen Challenge was a rehabilitation program to help teens 17 and older get off drugs and alcohol. The Central Oahu site had about 30 male clients in drug rehabilitation who live there for about a year.
An investigation revealed that between July 1998 and September 2000, the Ellesons received public assistance benefits as a family but failed to disclose substantial income, said Deputy Attorney General Rick Damerville.
Their income came primarily from checks written on their nonprofit corporate accounts to their personal bank accounts, Damerville said.
The amount of benefits the Ellesons received ranged in excess of $1,000 to $12,350.
They also are accused of obtaining about $74,000 in food stamp benefits by falsely representing to the Department of Human Services that their clients were preparing and eating food separately, when they were not, Damerville said.
Under food stamp laws, if a group of people unrelated to each other live in a household and eat together, they do not qualify for food stamps. If they eat separately, each individual will be looked at to see if he qualifies for benefits.
The investigation also revealed that as soon as their clients reached 18, the Ellesons sent them to apply for public assistance and disability benefits.
After they qualified, their clients were required to turn over their electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, cards to Suzanne Elleson, or else they were kicked out of the program, Damerville said.
One of the teens complained to officials that they were being made to turn over their benefits, resulting in the investigation, Damerville said.
At a bail hearing yesterday, Damerville said the teens told investigators that after they applied for public assistance, they were shipped off to a Christian college in Chicago to solicit donations for Teen Challenge. They were allegedly told not to inform Department of Human Services income maintenance workers that they were no longer in Hawaii.
While the students were in Chicago, the Ellesons withdrew money using the students' EBT cards. The investigation turned up bank surveillance camera photos of Suzanne Elleson making transactions using the cards.
A woman who answered the telephone at the Ellesons' home refused to identify herself, said she did not know anything about the matter and would not comment.

Original Article Found Here: