A Temecula woman has been accused of what Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said amounts to “one of the worst crimes
imaginable”: stealing money intended to benefit foster kids.
Vivian Lieska Benn, 40, was arrested Wednesday evening after she was pulled over by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies on Interstate 215 near Murrieta Hot Springs Road. Benn is the owner and CEO of Riverside-based Family Hope Foster Family Agency.
According to a news release from the DA’s office, Benn has been charged with six counts of embezzlement by a public officer, and one count each of embezzling property by a public officer and money laundering.
She is scheduled to be arraigned Friday.
“The government spends millions of dollars every year for the care and well-being of foster children in Riverside County,” Zellerbach said. “The lives of these children have already been severely disrupted so for someone who has been entrusted with their care to steal funds intended to benefit those children is certainly one of the worst crimes imaginable. This office will prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law.”
Foster family agencies are licensed by the California Department of Social Services and are required to be non-profit organizations, according to the DA’s news release. Benn’s arrest follows a 2009 audit by the Riverside County Auditor-Controller’s Office of the county’s Department of Public Social Services and several foster family groups homes and agencies.
“Foster family agencies are used to hire, license and oversee foster parents for the placement of foster children. Funding for foster care children comes from local, state and federal funds. In Riverside County, the foster care program is administered by Department of Public Social Services,” the news release read.
The 2009 audit determined that about $1.2 million of payments made to Family Hope FFA by the county DPSS was unaccounted for, the news release stated. That led to an investigation that began in June 2012.
“The DA’s investigation found that, from 2004-2009, Family Hope FFA received millions of dollars of public money from DPSS intended for the care of foster children. It is charged that, from Jan. 1, 2004, and Nov. 16, 2009, Benn embezzled about $400,000 from Family Hope FFA. As the person responsible for the safekeeping and disbursement of these public monies, Benn also is charged with misappropriation of those funds for her personal use,” the news release read.
The investigation also found that, from April 30, 2007, and Sept. 4, 2009, Benn embezzled and misappropriated an additional amount of about $125,000 by transferring those funds into a bank account Benn created called Brooklyn Financial, the DA’s office alleges.
“That account was determined to be a ‘shell company’ she created in her daughter’s name to hide money and avoid Internal Revenue Service garnishments,” the news release continued.
The transfer of these funds into the Brooklyn Financial account led to the money laundering charge.
“It is despicable and selfish for anyone to embezzle money at the expense of children who have suffered so much in their young lives,” said Susan Loew, director of the county Department of Public Social Services. “People who steal from children should feel the full weight of the law.”
Editor's note: A booking photo of the suspect will be included once it is released by the sheriff's department.