Autism group disbands after former volunteer linked to missing funds

JR Ortega By JR Ortega

Jan. 7, 2014 at 3:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 7, 2014 at 7:08 p.m.

A group in the midst of obtaining its nonprofit status shut down Jan. 1 after several thousand dollars the organization had raised disappeared.

Not only has the Autism Network Connection closed, but also its founder, Rosemary Pena Watts, has decided not to pursue criminal charges.

"I don't have it in my heart to do it," she said about filing a police report. "I know I need to."

Watts started the group in 2012 as a chance to give other families with autistic children a place to learn and grow.

The group hosted several functions throughout its two years, such as fundraiser bake sales, school supply drives, 5K runs and, last year, its first special needs prom.

Its biggest fundraiser was the Walk 4 Autism, which, though not spearheaded by the group, did provide the organization with funding.

The problem, Watts said, started in September, when a volunteer, who the Advocate is not naming because charges have not been filed, was suspected of stealing funds.

The volunteer was trusted with the money, Watts said, and when the amounts collected versus the amount the bank records showed were not matching up, Watts began to question the person.

About $2,000 disappeared from the Walk 4 Autism fund; and in September, during the group's 5K, several thousands of the $5,000 raised disappeared, Watts said.

When confronted by Watts, the volunteer denied the allegations, though some receipts Watts had at the time showed the money from the account being used on the volunteer's groceries, diapers and family trips, Watts said.

Keeping track of how much money is suspected of having been misused is difficult, Watts said, because the volunteer threw away most of the receipts.

A former member was asked to hold onto the receipts the member had so they would not be destroyed. Those receipts will be given back to Watts.

The lack of documentation, not being an official nonprofit and not being able to afford an attorney have made it seem impossible to get the money back, she said.

"I should have stayed on top of it," Watts said. "I trusted her, and I fell into a depression."

The missing funds pushed the group to the point of not being able to operate, a decision announced on the Autism Network Connection's Facebook page.

Clifford Grimes, executive director of United Way in Victoria, said obtaining nonprofit status is a lengthy process.

A 501(c)(3) requires an attorney and two major first steps, becoming incorporated in Texas and having a 501(c)(3) IRS status. The process will also include naming a board of directors, writing bylaws and creating policies and procedures.

"You really want to dot your 'I's and cross your 'T's," he said. "Once you open the doors (as a nonprofit), you are underneath the microscope."

Grimes also wants people to know to ask questions and know where their contributions are going.

"You (organizations) need to be transparent," he said. "The public will have a lot of questions."



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