• Orlando special needs school officials face judge over accusations of $4.5 million Medicaid fraud


    SANFORD, Fla. - For the second day, parents with children enrolled at Angels Center for Autism were left without a classroom after two officials at the school were arrested and charged with $4.5 million in Medicaid fraud.

    Maria Navarro, the owner of Angels Center for Autism, and office manager Judith Bench are accused of making 21,000 fraudulent Medicaid claims.

    The pair billed Medicaid for eight hours of one-on-one therapy for students, but only had enough staffing to provide two hours, investigators said.

    Students were also only in school for six hours a day, an arrest affidavit said.

    Parents were scrambling Wednesday to find some place for their children to go.

    "All of our lives are turned upside down now," Darlene Guenard said. "Parents don't have anywhere to put their kids and I don't have a school for (my daughter) now."

    Investigators said they were tipped off to the alleged fraud by a concerned parent who was suspicious about the amount the school was billing.

    "When I questioned a $6,000 bill, she said, her exact words were, 'No, we do them in groups,'" Rufino Cruz Jr. said.

    Neighbor Joni Whitted said from the outside, everything seemed fine at the school.

    “They have a program, where the kids actually learned the whole process of planting,” she said. “I am absolutely floored that this is happening. Actually, I just can’t believe it.”

    According to investigators, Navarro and Bench spent the money on a combined 13 cars and properties in Orlando, Winter Park and Oviedo.

    “You shouldn't over bill, because then the students are the ones who lose out,” Whitted said.

    Parents of students told Channel 9 the school has been shut down.

    Guenard, whose 9-year-old daughter attends the school, said a bus driver sent her a text message to notify her that the school was closed

    “And I (asked) her, 'Why?' And she didn't respond,” she said.

    With her question left unanswered, she showed up at the school Wednesday morning, but a note on the door didn’t offer an explanation. She sought to retrieve her daughter’s medication and paperwork, but no one was there.

    “She was upset,” Guenard said of her daughter. “She was, like, ‘I have to go to a new school?’ Because she was happy here.”

    Guenard said she moved closer to the school a month ago, but she’ll have to search for a new school.

    “It's so disappointing to know that they would take advantage of children with special needs like this,” she said.

    Navarro and Bench are being held at the Seminole County Jail in lieu of $100,000 bonds each.

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