Polaneczky: Embezzled bucks could've helped kids

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A longtime Northern Children's Services employee is charged with embezzling more than $600,000 from the agency devoted to helping poor children.

I KNOW IT'S early to think about Christmas. The mercury is barely below 70, and Halloween (beware of creepy clowns!) is still weeks away.

But if you're looking for a worthy nonprofit to support with a little tax-deductible love this coming holiday season, I respectfully submit Northern Children's Services for your consideration.

Because they were robbed.

How I wish I could say the caper was pulled off by an outsider who busted into Northern's Roxborough compound one night and fled. But the feds say it was an inside job, perpetrated in dribs and drabs by a trusted, longtime Northern employee, Sonja McQuillar. She was indicted Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

McQuillar, 50, the agency's former director of health and information management, is accused of embezzling funds from Northern between 2002 and 2014 in a despicable scheme that took a long time to be noticed.

One of her duties at Northern was to verify the accuracy of consultants' invoices and submit them for payment. She allegedly created phony invoices for relatives and friends who were never consultants for Northern, and for individuals who were consultants but for work they did not perform. The feds say McQuillar then forged the names of the recipients in order to cash the checks they were to be paid.

Total haul: $607,067.

To get how despicable this scenario is, let me tell you about Northern, whose staffers do God's work.

It was founded in 1853 as the Northern Home for Friendless Children (I just cringed typing that) to serve poor kids and orphans. Today, it provides behavioral and mental health services to children from extremely low-income families who are in crisis. It also offers on-site housing and services to homeless young mothers, some of them abuse victims. One was 13 and pregnant when she came to Northern's door (I just shuddered typing that).

The agency serves about 2,000 children a year. Some receive services in school; others are bused to the 6.5-acre Roxborough campus after school from all over the city and bused home afterward. They receive therapy and tutoring, enjoy a good supper in the cafeteria and work off their energy in the gym. Northern's rolling, leafy grounds boast a football field and swimming pool. Old stone buildings squat comfortably alongside new construction.

The place sits high on a hill and oozes serenity, which CEO Renata Cobbs-Fletcher swears is as crucial to kids' recovery as the therapy they undergo. That's why Northern's leadership is committed to keeping its operations on the Ridge Avenue campus, even though the property would sell for a pretty price to developers.

"We can't not be here," says Cobbs-Fletcher. "This is a special environment. It's healing."

I met Cobbs-Fletcher when I visited Northern last winter. I'd heard that one of its boilers, which had heated three buildings for 50 years, had coughed out its last bit of warmth. A new boiler cost $200,000, but Northern had just completed a major renovation and was out of cash. A crowdfunding campaign to buy a new boiler was barely limping along.

Two of the buildings housed the cafeteria and gym, but they were so cold (I could almost see my breath) that the kids couldn't use them. So they were crammed into Northern's one-room activity center. It was noisy, and therapists had little privacy to work one-on-one with children.

Thankfully, Northern eventually figured out a way to repair the busted boiler for $90,000 (it's still paying off the bill). And the kids returned to their regular digs, no worse for the winter wear.

I thought of Northern last week when the feds announced McQuillar's indictment. When I read that she was accused of stealing more than $600,000, I felt sick.

The money could've paid for that new boiler. And roofs the buildings need. And more therapists. And more programs. And more trips for the kids.

Northern administrators alerted law enforcement in June 2014 when financial improprieties were discovered. McQuillar resigned soon thereafter. The resulting investigation by the Philadelphia Office of the Inspector General and the FBI took two years. (Neither McQuillar nor her attorney, Jose Ongay, would comment for this column.)

"I can tell you that cases where people embezzle from nonprofits are some of the most significant cases we handle," says Philadelphia Inspector General Amy Kurland. "It's one thing to steal; it's another to steal from poor people and children. They're the most vulnerable people in our society. For someone to take advantage of them is just awful."

The case has broken the hearts of Northern staffers.

"They feel a deep sense of betrayal," says Cobbs-Fletcher. "They're so dedicated and committed and driven by our mission. In this field, you assume your coworkers feel the same. It's painful to think anyone could take advantage of that assumption and exploit an organization."

She's relieved that the investigation is over; she was hired after it began and quietly worked with the city and feds. She has spent the last week letting Northern's supporters know that the organization has learned its lesson.

"We've taken critical steps to ensure that this unfortunate act never happens again," she said in a statement after McQuillar's indictment. Northern has new financial controls in place, she reassured them, and qualified professionals to oversee them.

Good to hear. But it's disgusting that a place doing God's work even needs them.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie