25 Investigates: Nonprofit manager suspected of stealing tax dollars meant for disabled kids

CHELMSFORD, Mass. — Police are investigating a Lowell woman suspected of stealing tax dollars meant for kids with disabilities, 25 Investigates has learned.

Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen has been looking into the case for months and confirmed Amy Young, former director of family support at Chelmsford-based LifeLinks, is under investigation – suspected of helping herself to taxpayer money under the guise it was going to families in need.

LifeLinks is a nonprofit state contractor that passes along funding from the Department of Developmental Services to adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Greater Lowell area.

A DDS spokesman confirmed LifeLinks alerted the state to the suspected theft by an employee in September, but 25 Investigates obtained Chelmsford police log records showing the nonprofit waited until November to report “embezzlement at LifeLinks over many years.”

Another four months passed before parents got a letter from LifeLinks in March that a “member of the staff inappropriately used funds.”

Parents looking for answers

Lisa Puccia and Joan Levasseur, two mothers who told 25 Investigates Young was assigned to help their children take on the challenges of autism, say they feel betrayed.

“That's just the same as walking in someone's house and stealing from them,” said Levasseur.

Puccia said, “I'm actually taken back that she could even do this, at all, to any of us.”

When 25 Investigates asked LifeLinks about Young, the nonprofit’s CEO, Jean Phelps, declined an interview request but wrote in an email, “The staff person was terminated immediately.”

Now Puccia and Levasseur want to know if Young used their accounts in the suspected embezzlement – by billing for bogus services – but said they still can’t get answers.

“I couldn’t access the information to find out if the two checks a year I was getting for the social skills group were the only two checks against my account,” said Levasseur.

Phelps insisted in an email to 25 Investigates that the stolen money “did not directly impact any services received by individuals and families.”

Mom says no funding available

But Puccia isn’t convinced. She says her daughter stopped receiving help from LifeLinks in 2010.

“I approached LifeLinks, our family service provider, and she said that there was no funding available at that time and that when there was funding available they would actually get in touch with us and they never did,” said Puccia. “I thought she was looking out for my kid and she obviously wasn't. She was looking out for herself.”

Young declined an interview request. She instead sent us an email citing the “ongoing investigation” and added, “I have been advised to not make a statement.”

Meanwhile, parents tell 25 Investigates they became suspicious about recent social media posts from Young and her family documenting frequent vacations.

“(She’s taking) trips to Disney, trips to Las Vegas... and more than one trip to Disney in a year. I mean, really?,” said Levasseur.

LifeLinks receives millions in state tax dollars

Neither Chelmsford Police nor LifeLinks would say exactly how much money Young is suspected of embezzling or how long the theft had been going on.

But public records reveal the nonprofit contractor took in more than $15 million from the state in just fiscal 2016 alone.

The Chelmsford Police called the theft “a serious case” and said the case “will likely be presented to the grand jury” after the investigation is complete.

In an emailed statement to 25 Investigates, a spokesman for the Department of Developmental Services said the agency “treats the appropriation of taxpayer funds very seriously and is working with state officials to ensure any misused state funds are returned to the Commonwealth.”

The agency also told 25 Investigates, “DDS required that Lifelinks retain an independent accounting firm to conduct a review of their internal controls. No new individuals have been referred to LifeLinks for services.”