Young mother Maria Esposito, 21, pleaded guilty to two counts of dishonestly obtaining financial advantage by deception, after defrauding $327,330 from an autism charity where she worked.
Rosa and Jason Trigg, who run the charity, say they had known Ms Esposito prior to her employment with Autism Central Coast.
“I knew her as a young teenager, she was my son’s friend, very close friend,” Ms Trigg told A Current Affair.
“Towards the end of March she asked me if I had a job because she knew I was starting up, and Autism Central Coast was getting a little bigger, and she said she had done some accounting.”
Ms Esposito worked at the charity for 10 months before going on maternity leave.
She was the only full-time employee.
Ms Trigg said Ms Esposito confessed to stealing $16,000 from the charity, but initially denied taking any more.
Autism Central Coast provides services for adults and children on the autism spectrum, helping them find employment and housing, and cover living expenses such as rent and groceries.
It is a not-for-profit organisation and an accredited NDIS partner.
The charity underwent a financial audit earlier this year when it sought to become a benevolent society.
Ms Esposito was accused of labelling transactions as “staff wages” and “super” while funnelling that money into her own personal accounts.
“That $330,000 missing is actually our workers’ super, it’s actually our tax, it’s our insurance,” Ms Trigg said.
” It’s like my heart has been ripped. She was like a daughter, you know?”
Mr Trigg said at one point, they had been forced to shut down and almost sell the house.
Autism Central Coast client Aiden said he was “shocked” and “absolutely gutted” by the allegations.
“I’ve been asking Rosa, ‘When’s Marissa coming back? She’s on maternity leave, when’s she coming back? Bring her back! Bring her back!’ and now I find this out,” he said.
The charity can no longer afford to subsidise Aiden’s rent, so he has to move into another home with some of his more severely autistic peers.
Lawyer Richard Mitry said Ms Esposito could face 10 years in jail.
Ms Esposito refused to comment when approached by A Current Affair.
She has paid back about $6000 of the stolen money so far, and will be sentenced in May.