Pa.’s largest refugee resettlement agency is shutting down, but pathway to state remains open
In March, the Birmingham Friends Meeting in Chester County was finally ready to welcome two Congolese refugees.
"We had so much in place. We were ready to go," said member Peggy Pillard.
The group had raised $14,000 and organized 10 faith-based organizations into helping welcome two teenagers fleeing conflict. The plan was to settle them in, then bring the rest of the family.
Two days before the teenagers were supposed to arrive, the Friends meeting got some bad news: Lutheran Children and Family Services of Pennsylvania, the agency sponsoring their arrival through the State Department, was shutting down. The federal government sent the Congolese family to Nebraska instead.
LCFS started as a children's welfare organization in Philadelphia in 1922 and evolved into the largest refugee resettlement agency in the state.
On March 17, Luanne Fisher, the CEO of parent company Liberty Lutheran, sent an email to staff.
"To continue as responsible stewards of organizational resources, we must channel our strength where we can make the most impact," she wrote. "We have decided that the best use of our expertise and resources is to continue to build upon the significant footprint we have made in senior services."
Two days before that, the board had voted to end all programs offered by LCFS — except two aimed at seniors — by June 30.
Fisher cited habitual lack of funding for child welfare and immigration programs as precipitating the shutdown. "There's never been enough" in the way of funding from the federal and state governments, she said.
By January 2016, LCFS owed Liberty Lutheran in excess of $4.5 million, accrued over years of outspending its revenue, according to LCFS Chief Financial Officer John Barnum. According to tax documents filed by LCFS for 2014, the organization took in $216,869 less than it spent that fiscal year.
That was also the nadir of the state budget impasse, which ravaged social service providers across the Commonwealth.
By that point, Pennsylvania owed LCFS $7 million dollars, amounting to half of its total yearly budget. To get by, Liberty Lutheran was "robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Barnum.
As it began exiting the immigrant and refugee support business, LCFS sent ripples of instability through some of its partner organizations as well.
The Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative's funding is tied to LCFS, and the closure will cost it $40,000. That group offers community to newcomers who can feel isolated by new surroundings. They are now seeking alternative support from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
As for keeping the pipeline open to the hundreds of refugees LCFS had been welcoming each year, national resettlement agency Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has swung into action.
"We began immediately exploring new partnerships for Pennsylvania," said Nina Zelic, director of refugee services for that group. "LIRS is extremely committed to resettling refugees in Pennsylvania."
She said they hope to have found a new partner in another faith-based group with offices in Lancaster, Bethany Christian Services. Rerouting families to that group still requires approval from the State Department.
"Bethany is firmly committed and I think their goal is to hire at least 80 percent of LCFS staff. I think we all feel as good as we can feel during this kind of transition," said Zelic.
As for the Birmingham Friends Meeting, members hope all of the infrastructure they built up won't go to waste. They're meeting to discuss how they can help families arriving through another refugee resettlement agency in Pennsylvania, the Lancaster-based Church World Service, next week.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated LCFS' financial standing upon closure. The story has been updated to reflect the most recent financial information from the organization.
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