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?
Is Teen Challenge
a legitimate group?
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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