Christchurch couple live lavish lifestyle on the backs of disabled clients
The Alpha Support Centre Trust was set up to help some of the most vulnerable disabled people in Christchurch. While it struggled, its operators were spending the trust’s funding on personal luxuries. MARTIN VAN BEYNEN reports.
At lunchtime, Matthew would sit by the door of the care centre with his backpack on, waiting to be picked up.
Each day he had a long wait. His mother wasn’t due until 3pm.
Helen didn’t find out about her son’s habit – he is now 29 – until she was told by someone who worked at the care centre casually. Matthew, who is severely autistic, was desperately keen to go home because he was miserable and bored.
His mother knew Matthew wasn’t happy at the Alpha Support Centre Trust in Ferry Rd, Christchurch. He sometimes came home with a bruise but, clumsy and 188cm tall, bruises were not unusual. Soon after he started in 2010, she had trouble getting him in the car to take him to the centre and eventually reduced his five-day week to two days.
Matthew did not have the language ability to explain the centre was failing in exactly what it was paid to do. Fill his days with activities, training and outings.
“It all adds up now,” Helen says.
The centre opened in 1998 to look after disabled clients previously living at the Templeton Centre, south of Christchurch, which closed in 1996. Cecilia Ann Ellenbroek, who turns 62 in a few weeks, ran the centre with her mechanic husband, Alfonsus, 64. Staff and clients called Cecilia “Kate”, and Alfonsus, “Fonz”. Their Down syndrome son, Brendan, spent his days at the centre.
The centre operated between 9am and 3pm and had 70 high-needs clients on its books. Between 20 and 40 attended each session. The clients varied. Some were young, active and high functioning. Some were in wheelchairs. Others were potentially violent or disruptive and kept in a garage-like building at the back of the premises called Omega.
As Kate described it, “the s… hit the fan” in July 2014. Four years later, when they appeared in the Christchurch District Court on July 19, Kate pleaded guilty to six charges of falsely accounting about $573,000 and six charges of theft ($494,544) by a person in a special relationship. Alfonsus pleaded guilty to six charges of theft ($71,080) in a special relationship.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) statement of facts says between 2010 and 2015, the couple spent about $500,000 meant for their clients on themselves. Essentially they used an American Express (AMEX) credit card for both trust and personal expenses. Personal expenses, such as travel, clothes, holidays and items like cigarettes and smoked salmon should have been reimbursed to the trust, but were not.
The Ellenbroeks were not sophisticated criminals. Kate made little effort to hide the expenditure, other than to rip off the bits of receipts showing the items bought. Alpha’s external accountant warned her, but she continued.
Perhaps she thought she would not be caught. The centre’s funding was based on a high trust, low oversight model and it was not as if the clients could complain.
Each month Kate checked the AMEX statements and coded items to differentiate between personal and trust items.
The SFO found she had charged lengthy holidays as a trust expense and cigarettes bought at petrol stations as vehicle expenses. Women’s clothing bought at luxury overseas department stores was coded as “craft” items and luxury grocery items were “stores” for the trust.
The profligate spending had gone on for at least five years. How did they get away with it for so long?
The trust was required to file annual returns to Charities Services and these should have rung alarm bells.
In the year to March, 2011, travel expenses were recorded as $88,000, the following year they were $133,492 and the next year, travel was $90,000.
Travel was the biggest expense after wages and rent. The Ellenbroek’s company, KAB Holdings 2008, owned the two-level building leased by the trust and the company was paid $130,000 a year in rent. The trust also paid for repairs and maintenance and paid the rates and insurance.
In the years to which the charges related, the trust had a yearly income of about $1 million. About $800,000 came from the Ministry of Health and about $150,000 came from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).
Instead of the funding going towards giving clients a better quality of life, a good chunk of it went into improving the Ellenbroeks’ lifestyle.
The funding paid for weeks of beach-front accommodation at the Waikiki Shore condominiums in Honolulu on two long holidays in 2011 and 2012. Cost: $120,000. It also paid for family trips to San Diego, New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The Ellenbroeks did not skimp on meals and entertainment.
They used the funding to buy appliances worth $14,000 for their new home in the high-end Pegasus subdivision, near Woodend, and Kate bought diamond earrings valued at $3999. They frequently went to Auckland for concerts – Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Jason Derulo – with all expenses going on the taxpayer’s tab.
The trust had five trustees – the Ellenbroeks, their other son Craig, an electrician, real estate agent Harry van Tongeren, and staffer Jocelyn Forward.
Van Tongeren said the matter was complex and declined to comment. Craig Ellenbroek blames accountants for getting his parents into trouble although says he is upset with his mother. He denies clients missed out. Forward could not be reached before deadline.
The Ministry of Health says it began investigating the trust in July 2014 after a complaint about the quality of service. A financial audit identified potential fraud and the SFO was called in. It says it now works more closely with the MSD in checking its day disability support services. It also carries out more frequent routine evaluations.
Kelvin Moffatt, the general manager of contracts for MSD says concerns were first investigated by an independent auditor in 2013 and the trust was cleared.
In 2014, both MSD and the Ministry of Health received a complaint about possible financial mismanagement and client safety. A financial and claims audit was carried out, he says. It uncovered many breaches including of the GST Act and Immigration Act.
“The criminal offending by the Ellenbroeks is extremely disappointing … Systems that would be so rigorous as to detect every possible case of criminality would be unworkably bureaucratic for the community providers we rely on,” he says.
“These cases are an exception. They are, however, a reminder for us to remain vigilant in our processes. One change we did make was to move the independent audits to a stronger focus of forensic analysis of financials.”
Staff noticed the decline in services between 2010 and 2015 as Kate constantly stressed the need to cut costs.
She told them not to turn on the heating until clients arrived and she cut down on outings to save petrol. Arts and crafts items were kept locked in a cabinet and staff needed Kate’s permission to provide clients with new materials. Baking sessions were also reduced to save money.
At the same time, the Ellenbroeks were enjoying lavish holidays and buying luxury goods.
A caregiver who worked at the centre for several years says the financial constraints meant the staff turnover was “crazy”.
“One time it was just me and the team leader. We were so understaffed I had to stand between the two rooms in the doorway and keep an eye on everyone because there was no one to come in and help.”
Kate would “rarely” work on the floor and would only be seen if she needed to talk to staff.
He says staff grew suspicious when they saw a new car, frequent trips to Hawaii and the couple’s move to their new house in 2012. The couple would sometimes invite staff to their Queenstown house.
Clients missed out on many activities and outings, he says.
“Every time we wanted to do activities, we were not allowed to do that. Like if we wanted to buy art supplies. We used to do all the free stuff – Botanic Gardens, Air Force museum and lot of walks around the block.
The caregiver said audits did take place, but the checks were cursory. Staff were required to write notes and set written goals for the clients, but the record keeping and reports tended to fall by the wayside, he says.
“They did not follow through. It started with everyone on board and then we said the goal for so-and-so is to do this and Kate would say, ‘we don’t have the money right now’.”
He feels Kate deserves whatever she gets.
“To me even if the staff were paid crap money, they made the choice. Those guys, the clients, missed out on a lot of stuff because of what she did.”
He says he still misses the clients.
“We worked with the high needs, the violent, low functioning guys. And you know what? I, along with many of the staff, had a blast with them. Those guys are amazing.”
Matthew, the young man who waited at the centre door at lunchtime, now attends another care centre two days a week. At home he has an X-box and a computer. He watches his Youtube digger videos and listens to his favourite music – Kenny Rogers and Abba.
Helen says the new care centre is in the country and has chickens and other animals. Clients help do some of the chores like gardening and lawn mowing.
She feels guilty Matthew had to go through years of poor treatment.
“Who is going to compensate Matthew for all those miserable days,” she says.
The question could be answered at the Ellenbroeks’ sentencing on October 25.
Defence counsel James Rapley has indicated substantial reparation will be paid before the sentencing. The SFO has asked for some of the money to go to clients who lack much of a voice.
Helen says the clients were particularly vulnerable because most came from residential homes and she saw few parents at the centre. It’s known that Kate targeted high-needs clientele to secure higher levels of funding.
The court will decide how the Ellenbroeks are to be punished. No doubt they have their own version of events, but when they stand in the dock on October 25, Waikiki Beach will seem a long way away.