OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – An Opelika daycare owner pleads guilty in a fraud case where investigators say she pocketed more than $100,000 in taxpayer dollars and diverted funds from working parents who needed them to afford daycare.
In January, the Lee County DA along with Opelika police served search warrants at several Opelika daycares and the homes owned by Carolyn Wilkerson and her sister Cynthia Jones. The sisters were arrested on allegations they stole nearly $700,000 in federal taxpayer dollars meant to help working families afford daycare over five years.
Back in January, Carolyn Wilkerson maintained her innocence as investigators searched her home and the New Horizon’s daycares she owned and operated.
“We keep children, and the state pays us. You have to prove it, and I am innocent,” Wilkerson told News 3 as her property was being searched.
Six months later, on July 30th, Wilkerson pled guilty to six counts of Public Assistance Fraud.
“She was sentenced to 10 years on each count – suspended – five years probation and ordered to pay $160,000 in restitution. At the time of her arrest, we froze her bank account associated with the daycare unit so she forfeited $160,000 out of that account and it will be immediately dispersed out to Department of Human Resources,” shared Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes.
The case began when DHR uncovered suspicious activity on daycare subsidy swipe cards.
“They were able to subvert the application process or falsify applications to allow these cards, these subsidy cards, to get created so that they could get paid on the cards. Sometimes the children were there and didn’t know these subsidies existed, and other cards were made for children who didn’t exist,” explained Hughes.
Hughes says the case against Wilkerson’s sister, Cynthia Jones the owner of First Steps is still pending. Jones allegedly stole more than $500,000 from the program meant to help working families move off public assistance.
Hughes says on top of defrauding taxpayers; the scheme diverted money away from families who needed it as they were working to better their circumstances. Hughes says in some cases the families within the daycare had no idea they had qualified for the assistance.
“So you had children and families who needed to take advantage of this who couldn’t because of the scheme they had going,” said Hughes.
News 3 reached out to Barry Spear, a spokesperson with the Department of Human Resources. Spear could not comment on this specific case but says it’s unlikely someone convicted of a felony would be approved to operate a daycare. Spear says a daycare owner who pleads guilty or is found guilty of defrauding a subsidy program would not be able to have access to that program again.