Adapting after a betrayal

Date: 2008-07-24

Agency struggles after major theft

In its 101 years, the Florence Crittenton League adoption agency has weathered economic downtowns, fewer domestic adoptions, and tougher guidelines for adoptions in foreign countries.

But today, it may be facing the biggest challenge yet - its betrayal by a longtime employee who stole $637,000 from the Lowell-based agency over a period of seven years.

Natalie Fleury, who worked for 19 years at the agency as a bookkeeper and office manager, is scheduled to be sentenced next week after pleading guilty to 15 counts of mail fraud and five counts of tax evasion. Her husband, Thomas Fleury, pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion in the case.

Ilze Keegan, executive director of the agency, is looking forward to putting the ordeal behind her. The past two years have been difficult, she said, as the agency tries to rebound from the financial strain and the pain and shock of the embezzlement.

"I wish I had been more suspicious, but I wasn't," said Keegan, who has worked at the agency since 1981. "I am so angry. It was so needless."

Natalie Fleury had been stealing from the agency since 1998, authorities said, but the theft wasn't discovered until April 2006, when the agency's auditors noticed $12,000 missing from one of its accounts.

Keegan said when the auditors asked Fleury for deposit slips, she got upset and quit a few days later. The agency then asked the bank to go through the accounts.

Investigators found that Fleury would make out a check to a vendor and ask Keegan to sign it, then erase the vendor's name and write in her own. When the bank statement came, she would alter it to reflect payment to the vendor, agency officials said. When there wasn't enough money in the agency's operating account to cover the checks, money was moved from a savings account.

During that time, Fleury bought a new home, a recreational vehicle, and an annuity, said Keegan, who says she hopes the agency can recoup some of that money.

Officials said no adoption was ever stalled or put at risk, but the embezzlement has left the agency in a precarious financial situation. The theft put a big dent in the savings account that had been built up to provide a safety net. The reserve was there to help the agency survive periods of declining adoptions, which it has seen in the past year, Keegan said.

Adoptions typically decrease during tough economic times, she said, but the agency also isn't seeing as many adoption opportunities. Fewer countries are allowing foreign placements, and those that do have instituted stricter guidelines, Keegan said.

In a busy year, the agency arranges between 30 and 40 adoptions, mostly from China and Russia. Last year, it completed 15.

Keegan has had to lay off a part-time office worker and cut back on support services and programs for adoptive parents.

"If we had our safety net, we could have done more for people," she said. "We could have had more speakers, more events, be more nurturing with clients. Now we have no safety net, and it's scarier. We're still open. We're still trying."

The agency has taken several steps to improve its operations and financial accountability since the theft.

David Ponte, who was president of the board when the fraud was discovered, said his priority was making sure the agency was stable moving forward. The board hired a consultant to examine the agency's operations and to recommend improvements. A computer system was put in place, replacing the task of bookkeeping by hand. Keegan now opens all the mail herself, and checks require two signatures, not one. And the agency has been open and honest about the incident, Ponte said.

"I think we did everything we could," said Ponte, who for reasons unrelated to the scandal no longer serves on the board. "We looked at where we were and what we needed to do. I think we were headed in the right direction."

Families served by the agency apparently haven't lost faith. Many say they are fully behind Keegan and will do what they can to make sure the agency survives. Keegan had written to families in May, explaining what happened and asking for donations. The families have sent in more than $26,000.

Stephanie and Vernon Sewade of North Andover, who adopted a daughter in 2003 from Russia, has stayed involved with the agency and makes an annual donation.

"Our experience was so positive," Stephanie Sewade said. "We've donated to help keep the agency going for other prospective parents. At other places, you were a number. Florence Crittenton personalized it."

Sewade said she feels betrayed by Fleury, who she says knew the emotional and financial struggles families go through in the adoption process.

"People refinance their homes, take loans on 401ks," Sewade said. "She knew them. She befriended us, we trusted her, and she stole our trust."

William Levitsky of Westford, who was 3 when he was adopted 13 years ago, said he is forever grateful to the agency.

He was born in Belarus with a club foot, and no one knew early on how well he would walk. Today, he's an avid soccer player who says he'll be disappointed if he doesn't make a pro team someday.

"I'm so lucky to be adopted and to have such a great family," he said. "For someone to take that chance away from a child is inhumane. Honestly, it's just an unbelievable thing to do to a nonprofit organization that helps people."

Sewade and Levitsky both said they plan to attend Fleury's sentencing hearing next Tuesday.

Fleury faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each count of mail fraud. She faces up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for each count of tax evasion.

Attorneys for the Fleurys did not return calls.


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