Operation Smile lays off staff in Baltimore in belt tightening

Charity that donates doctors' help was under fire for deaths overseas

July 14, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Stung by the tarnished reputation and financial woes of its parent organization, the Baltimore chapter of a charity that works to surgically repair facial deformities for needy children is laying off its paid staff and scaling back its operations.

Operation Smile, an organization based in Norfolk, Va., came under criticism in the fall when published reports raised questions about the number of deaths and complications that resulted from surgeries performed by doctors volunteering for the charity overseas.

It has since begun changes in oversight after conducting an internal review, which the organization said found no willful misconduct but "a need for better internal controls," both medical and financial. As part of a belt-tightening, Operation Smile announced yesterday it was closing its Philadelphia chapter and laying off staff in Boston and Baltimore, leaving those programs to operate on a volunteer basis.

The Baltimore chapter, one of 26 in the United States, has worked to bring about 50 local indigent children together with area doctors who donate their services to correct problems such as burns and scars, said Jim McAveney of Kingsville, who founded the chapter six years ago.

The chapter's fund raising - usually over $100,000 a year - was down about 40 percent in the last fiscal year, a downturn McAveney attributes to publicity about the international organization's problems. He said he reluctantly followed the directive from headquarters to lay off the staff of two.

"Our hearts have been so involved and our spirit has been so involved, we don't ever want to hurt anything Operation Smile is trying to do," McAveney said. "It's with deep regret that we're going along with this. Hopefully this chapter will continue to live."

Linda M. Ryan, who had been the paid domestic program coordinator in Baltimore until she stopped taking payment in March, said none of the children treated in Baltimore died or had health complications as a result of their surgery through Operation Smile.

The organization has recorded one death in the United States in its 18-year history, and that occurred in Norfolk. Fifteen children have died overseas.

Ryan said she will continue to work as a volunteer to coordinate treatment for Baltimore-area children still waiting for surgery. But the chapter will have to stop holding annual health fairs, which were used to find and screen children who qualified for the service, she said. The chapter hopes to continue to help children referred to it by word of mouth, but expects the volume to be greatly reduced.

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