Facing a rift among leaders in Madison’s Hmong community and vocal lobbying from a local activist group, the Madison City Council agreed Tuesday to take proposals for city funding to serve South Asian elders — including from one new group that’s been repeatedly accused of unethical behavior with those same elders.
At issue is who should get $115,000 for mental health case management and other programming as part of the city of Madison and Dane County’s response to the September closing of Kajsiab House, which through Journey Mental Health Center provided help with housing and insurance, social activities, medication consultations, mental health treatment and other services to Hmong elders.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted overwhelmingly to put out a request for proposals for the money, instead of backing a measure from staff and Mayor Paul Soglin to allocate it to the agency that has already been providing services to the population with a mix of city and county funding.
In partnership with the Hmong Institute, Anesis Therapy hired Kajsiab House’s longtime director, Doua Vang, and other former Kajsiab House employees last year to continue running the program, since renamed Hmoob Kaj Siab.
Among the funding Anesis has already been approved for is up to $460,000 in county-authorized, fee-for-service mental health care assistance. Many southeast Asians fought on America’s side during the Vietnam War or became victims of former Cambodian Prime Minister Pol Pot’s regime in the 1970s, and some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems.
The relationship between Vang and Anesis soon soured, and Vang quit to start his own agency, the Southeast Asian Healing Center, with the help of local social justice group Freedom Inc. They’ve been providing services three days a week for elders on a volunteer basis out of the same building where Freedom Inc. has its office, and argue they are better equipped for the job and should get the city money.
Freedom Inc. has gained attention in recent months for disrupting Madison School Board and committee meetings to protest the longtime presence of school resource officers in Madison’s four main high schools, contending that the city police officers contribute to a “school-to-prison” pipeline for black students.
Anesis officials and Dane County Board member Jamie Kuhn, who chairs the board’s Health & Human Needs Committee, say people associated with Freedom Inc. and Southeast Asian Healing Center have been spreading lies about the services provided at Hmoob Kaj Siab, and tried to undermine managers and pressure elders to stay away from the program, and engaged in other unethical behavior.
“Elders are in the middle and being re-traumatized by being forced or maybe even coerced to participate in tactics and efforts over fear of loss of care or told they are not cared for under the current circumstance,” Kuhn said in a Nov. 12 email to Vang, Freedom Inc. co-executive director Kabzuag Vaj and others.
Hnub Yang, a clinician with Anesis who formerly worked at Kajsiab House, said in a Jan. 15 email to the City Council that Hmoob Kaj Siab “clients mentioned horrifying threats that they received from staff members at the Southeast Asian Healing Center,” including that they would be arrested if they went to Hmoob Kaj Siab or that if they went there, they would not be welcome at the center.
Vang and the Southeast Asian Healing Center did not respond to requests for comment, but in his testimony before the council on Tuesday, Vang said that, while in charge of Kajsiab House, he had grown the program and never fired any employees, and it “has become one of the best-practice models in the nation.” He said Hmong Institute board president Mai Zong Vue refused to work with him.
Vaj denied that Freedom Inc. or the Southeast Asian Healing Center has used elders to lobby the city or told them not to go to Hmoob Kaj Siab, now housed in the Life Center Madison Church on the city’s Southeast Side.
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She declined to point to any specific shortcomings in Anesis’ work with clients but said “they’re not adequate” because elders don’t know or trust their staffers.
“This is his program,” Vaj said of Vang. “He’s been running it for 19 years.”
Charges of nepotism
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting — which was repeatedly interrupted by Freedom Inc. activists — Hmong Institute board president Mai Zong Vue painted Vang as motivated by nepotism.
“The reason (Vang) and I disagree is because accountability,” she said. “ (Vang) wants to hire his family back, and I said that’s not what we agree on. The agreement ... is to sustain program for the community, not to hire his family back.”
Madison Community Development Director Jim O’Keefe said it was “unfortunate” that the council opted to request proposals for the $115,000, because that will delay awarding the money for what Soglin estimated would be about five to six months. O’Keefe said that while no agency had been earmarked for the funds in the 2019 budget, the “operating presumption was that these entities that had stepped in ... would likely be the organizations that would continue to provide these services.”
“Splitting the money is just going to give lower funding to different entities,” said Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green.
Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, lead sponsor of the resolution to issue the request for proposals, said, “The city should have transparent processes for ongoing funding. It is a matter of principle.
“None of us sitting at this table are either Hmong or Cambodian nor part of that community,” she said during a Feb. 11 Finance Committee meeting. “It is not our place, nor is it our role, to create understanding and communication within that community.”
Anesis owner and founder Myra McNair said the city led her to believe the money would go to her agency, and she’s not sure whether she will submit a proposal under the RFP process because she’s not sure she wants to deal with what she said has become a politicized issue.
“This is affecting a lot of clients — the drama that they created,” she said. “I’m really disappointed that they’re dragging it out more.”