A 46-year-old Kinsale woman has been jailed for a year after a court heard that she carried out a fraud that yielded almost €100,000.
Jennifer O’Driscoll of St John’s Terrace, World’s End, Kinsale was working as a social worker when she created fake foster placements for children with families so she could collect the money.
She was sentenced to three years in jail with two years suspended after pleading guilty to 38 counts of theft and 42 counts of deception at North Lee Social Work Department in Blackpool in Cork city between May 2008 and January 2013.
Det Sgt Clodagh O’Sullivan had previously told Cork Circuit Criminal Court how O’Driscoll, who was employed by the HSE as a social worker, used her knowledge of the payment system for foster families to make the false claims, amounting to some €96,962 over a near five-year period.
The fraud involved O’Driscoll making out payments to foster families for fake placements for real children and when the money was paid to the families, she would then call to them and explain that a mistake had been made by a new person in the unit and that they had been overpaid.
O’Driscoll would then recoup the overpaid money, explaining that other foster families were awaiting payments, and none of the foster families suspected anything was amiss other than an administrative error, as O’Driscoll was a social worker and they trusted her.
Some nine foster families and 23 children, including three children who ended up being placed on a HSE list of children at risk, even though they were never in care, were embroiled in the scam which came to light over HSE concerns about payments to two foster families.
Det Sgt O’Sullivan said that O’Driscoll made admissions when she was arrested and questioned about the fraud, though she disputed the amounts involved and denied it was €96,962, but gardai were satisfied that this was the amount that she got from her fraud operation.
Last week, O’Driscoll’s barrister Sinead Behan BL, said that her client, who has since resigned from the HSE and had her professional social work qualification removed, has repaid a total of €71,000 and was happy to forfeit the remainder of her pension which was worth €4,000 a year.
Judge Sean Ó Donnnabhain said that the starting point in dealing with any fraud case was that the fraud was deliberate and planned but this was marked by a ‘distinct and organised methodology’ by O’Driscoll to create ‘a web of deceit with herself at the centre’.
It was bad enough that she had stolen money that was destined for people who were entitled to payments to foster children, but what made it even worse was that she used the names of actual children who were ‘not even within the compass of the HSE’ to perpetrate the fraud, he said.
He noted that she had co-operated with gardai and made admissions but that came after ‘a considerable amount of spadework’ had been done by gardai even though those admissions were of considerable benefit to the prosecution.
He accepted that it would have been a difficult and prolonged case for the State to prove had it gone to trial and there was no certainty as to the outcome, so in that sense her plea of guilty was of significant benefit and she should be given credit for that, he said.
He also accepted that O’Driscoll had lost her job as a social worker and would not work in the profession again but he said he was no wiser as to what she had used the money for, as she had not used it to pay a gambling debt, or fund a drug addiction, as sometimes happens in such cases.
He accepted that she had made a serious effort to repay the stolen money and he accepted that it was quite possible that she could end up repaying more than she had stolen when all her pension entitlements were forfeited.
He noted that O’Driscoll was separated from her husband and he accepted that her incarceration for the past month had proved a hardship in terms of the care of their children, and that was something that he had to factor into his deliberations when sentencing.
He had studied recent fraud cases from the Court of Appeal and a common theme through all of them, which all involved ‘a fundamental breach of trust’, was that when a substantial sum of money was stolen, the court confirmed a custodial sentence. He said that in those circumstances, he believed the appropriate sentence was three years but he suspended the final two years given that O’Driscoll – who was fighting back the tears as she stood in the dock – had no previous convictions and had previously been of good character.