Noah’s Ark accused of helping itself instead of children – Atlanta Journal Constitution
When the Noah’s Ark Children’s Care home opened its doors in the early 1990s, it did so as a residential group home with the mission of providing a “a nurturing environment” for “state-confiscated children,” according to IRS filings.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found evidence the group home closed in 2010, but continued to solicit donations from the public, accepting at least $658,000 in contributions from donors in the years that followed.
“There’s no Children’s Care Home, like no foster kids, period.” said Christy Cunningham, who worked as the Noah’s Ark marketing director.
The Noah’s Ark name is best known around metro Atlanta for its animal sanctuary which rescues and rehabilitates exotic animals.
But tucked away on the same Henry County property is a 6,000-square-foot house that was once the Children’s Care Home.
The two charities share one address, one website — and money, according to the whistleblowers.
“You get into a really sticky situation when you start taking money meant for one non-profit and putting it into another,” said Jo Crane, who worked as the charity’s assistant controller.
Crane, Cunningham, and former accountant, Jill Phillips-Linger, approached WSB-TV to share what they observed while working at Noah’s Ark.
“It’s not anything like they pretend they are,” said Phillips-Linger.
All three women had access to the Noah’s Ark records and say they were fired when they began to question discrepancies in the finances, and personal spending by the Noah’s Ark founding family.
“There’s no way that they can account for everything they spent,” said Crane, “because it’s not spent where it should be.”
The charity’s founder, Jama Hedgecoth, told Channel 2 she could account for all the money and said not “one penny” had been misspent.
In 2011, Georgia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) sent a letter to Noah’s Ark confirming the Children’s Care Home had closed, “in response to financial failure.”
Hedgecoth did help foster children for years, but admitted in a letter to DHS that the last foster child left her home in March 2010.
“I freaked out. I’m like, ‘Holy crap. I’m involved in a major, major scam,’” Cunningham recounted when she began working on the Noah’s Ark website.
As recently as February 2015, that website was still soliciting and accepting donations as the Children’s Care Home.
That same month, it changed its business name with the state of Georgia, but continued to utilize its original 501(c)(3) IRS exemption ID assigned to the children’s home.
State records show that non-profit, now called Noah’s Ark Children’s Sanctuary, has not been registered as a charity since 2012.
“Absolutely I think the state of Georgia should be investigating this organization,” said Sandra Minuitti, who runs the watchdog website, Charity Navigator. “That’s a huge ethical breach it could be a legal issue as well.”
Minuitti said she sees a number of red flags in the Noah’s Ark financial records, particularly so many Hedgecoth family members on both of the charity’s boards.
She also found it unusual that the children’s home could have brought in so many contributions without any fundraising expenses.
The charity’s own audits show tens of thousands of dollars spent on things like groceries, utilities, even landscaping, since that last foster child left in 2010.
Hedgecoth, also paid herself roughly $100,000 in children’s care home salary during that time; she also makes roughly $65,000 each year from the animal sanctuary.
Channel 2 initially scheduled an interview with Hedgecoth, then her general manager Raymond Jordan, who had arranged the interview, tried to cancel it due to weather.
When told the questions were regarding financial irregularities at the children’s home, and that access to the animal sanctuary grounds were not necessary, he left a voice-mail message claiming Hedgecoth was suddenly getting on a plane to Haiti and would be unavailable for two weeks.
Two days later, Channel 2 spotted Hedgecoth and Jordan, at a gas station near Noah’s Ark.
“You can’t tell me what happened to more than half a million dollars in the last five years?” Channel 2 asked.
“Nothing has happened to over half a million dollars, except it was spent on children,” Hedgecoth replied, dismissing the allegations as being trumped-up by disgruntled former employees.
Hedgecoth admits five of the six kids featured on her website as “children of the ark” are her own adopted children.
Channel 2 asked, “Besides your adopted children, who are the children living in that home?”
“There’s children we have rescued from another country that are medically fragile,” replied Hedgecoth.
“Online, you say the money you’re raising is going to abused and neglected children?” Channel 2 asked.
“Absolutely,” replied Hedgecoth, “Have you ever been to Haiti?”
The sixth child featured on the website is Haitian. As of last summer, he was being adopted by Hedgecoth’s daughter.
“Putting them out there as foster kids, and people are giving them money, I mean, once you adopt them, they’re your kids. It’s not up to everybody else to raise your kids,” said Phillips-Linger.
‘Never misspent one penny’
Hedgecoth claims she pays for 100 percent of her adopted children’s expenses and lifestyle, but admits they all live on the tax-free property. She says it is no longer a children’s home, it is her home.
The latest IRS tax return for the children’s home charity lists a $950,000 building as an asset, along with $150,000 worth of equipment.
“I have never misspent one penny, not one penny,” said Hedgecoth, “And I can prove it.”
She may have to.
Georgia’s Secretary of State’s charities division opened an investigation after Channel 2 inquired about the Noah’s Ark records. The state plans to investigate both charities, based on the whistleblowers’ claims.
After Hedgecoth’s interview, Noah’s Ark changed its website, to specifically say it does not take in foster children through the state of Georgia.