Special-needs boy, 6, turned away after parent questions school's ownership
Owner illegally got $4 million from Medicaid, investigators say
SOUTH MIAMI, Fla. – Katherine Navarro's 6-year-old son, Jaryon, was a student at Angel's Therapy Center in South Miami when the school unexpectedly closed in December, just before winter break.
The school had told parents that Medicaid had not paid them for their services and didn't give a date for when the school would reopen. Navarro said no one at the school would return her calls, and eventually she turned to Local 10 News.
Fast-forward to January.
The school reopened but when Navarro showed up with Jaryon, she received a letter from the school's owner, Maria Navarro, which said Jaryon was being discharged because the school no longer had a therapist for him.
"It was her way of retaliating against us for seeking answers," Katherine Navarro said.
The mother then recorded her discussion with Maria Navarro, in which she says the school's owner attacked her for speaking with Local 10 News last year.
"You created a false impression of our business," Maria Navarro said in the recorded conversation. "Someone who says bad things about my business has to go."
Katherine Navarro said her son -- who is nonverbal, autistic and functions at a 12-to 18-month-old level -- has to pay the price.
Maria Navarro declined initial requests for an interview.
A spokesperson for Medicaid would not comment about the stopped payments to the school, but did reference an ongoing fraud investigation.
On Feb. 7, officers arrested Maria Navarro and her office manager, Judith Benech, after investigators for Florida's attorney general said the pair illegally billed Medicaid for more than $4 million of services they were not providing to autistic students at the Orlando location.
A 24-page affidavit said Maria Navarro used some of the money to fund a lavish lifestyle. This included buying 13 vehicles and three homes for her and her son.
"Fraudulent billing is one of the most common forms of Medicaid fraud, and we will not allow unscrupulous individuals to defraud the Medicaid program," Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a media release. "Using disabled children to fraudulently bill Medicaid is despicable, but thanks to the collaborative efforts of my Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and our local and federal partners, this scheme has been stopped and those responsible will be held accountable."
Officials began to investigate Benech and Maria Navarro after they were tipped off by the parent of a Medicaid recipient, who noticed an unusually high amount of Medicaid billing on an explanation of benefits.
The investigation revealed that the pair would bill eight hours a day for services at the school, which isn't open for such billing, the attorney general's office said. The invoices reflected one-on-one therapy that the children rarely, if ever, received.
Not only did the school fail to provide treatment for the children but Maria Navarro and Benech also over-billed for services that were not provided, the attorney general's office said.
Benech and Maria Navarro each face one count of Medicaid provider fraud and one count of organized scheme to defraud. Both charges are first-degree felonies. If convicted, the pair face up to 30 years in prison and more than $59,000 in fines and restitution.
Katherine Navarro, who has since enrolled her son in a new school, said the arrests confirmed her intuition something wasn't right.
It's not clear if the same billing issues were happening at the Miami-Dade school, and a spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment on the case as it is an active and ongoing investigation.
Katherine Navarro said she now has doubts that her son was getting the treatment he needed while at the school.
The school's staff declined to comment on the case and said they didn't know about the billing issues.
Some parents said the allegations were hard to believe.
"It's very sad that there's people out there like this," Katherine Navarro said. "I don't think her heart was in the business of actually helping children. She was just in it for the money."
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