A former planner for the beleaguered Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has been charged in Chicago’s federal court with siphoning more than a million dollars from state funds meant for child care and blowing much of it on slot machines at a local casino.
Shauntelle Pridgeon, 54, of Chicago, was charged with honest-services fraud in a criminal complaint made public last week in U.S. District Court. She was ordered released on her own recognizance by U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Jantz, court records show.
Her attorney, Quentin Banks, could not immediately be reached Wednesday.
According to the charges, Pridgeon had served since 2015 as a social service community planner for DCFS, responsible for reviewing and approving daycare providers for children under the agency’s supervision.
Between 2016 and 2022, the charges alleged, Pridgeon received at least $1.6 million in payments from 14 separate childcare providers doing business with DCFS, who deposited the funds in a bank account controlled by Pridgeon and her husband. None of the payments were disclosed to DCFS or the state, as required by law, the complaint alleged.
The investigation showed some of the locations that Pridgeon had claimed were providing daycare for foster children were either vacant buildings or other businesses. In other instances, Pridgeon overcharged DCFS for child care from legitimate providers who were supposed to be paid at a lower rate, the complaint alleged.
During the same time period, Pridgeon “gambled extensively” at a Chicago-area casino, primarily playing slot machines, according to the complaint. Casino records obtained through a federal grand jury subpoena showed she wagered nearly $4 million over an eight-year period ending last year, with losses totaling $2.2 million, the complaint alleged.
Records showed Pridgeon often paid her gambling expenses with the illicit payments she’d received as a result of the fraud, the complaint stated.
The fraud was first detected in August 2022, when Pridgeon’s colleague reported to their supervisor that one of the daycare providers that Pridgeon had approved was paid by DCFS for childcare that was never provided or at rates that were “substantially higher” than what the agency had authorized, according to the complaint.
Another red flag came when the colleague found out the address listed for the provider, identified only as Provider A, contained no childcare business at all, according to the complaint.
“Instead, a beauty salon was located at that address, and behind the beauty salon was an apartment above a garage,” the charges stated.
On Aug. 16, 2022, Pridgeon’s supervisor called a meeting at the DCFS offices on South Indiana Avenue in Chicago. Pridgeon was ordered to bring the files related to Provider A, but instead “excused herself to go to the restroom,” then went to the file room and took the files and started wandering the building.
Another DCFS employee told investigators they saw Pridgeon in the elevator holding the stack of files and that she said, “I (expletive) up” according to the complaint.
By the time Pridgeon was eventually escorted back to the supervisor’s office, the files she was holding were largely empty of documents. Her boss “suspected that Pridgeon had disposed of documents from the files in confidential trash bins located throughout the DCFS office,” the complaint stated.
When confronted about her approval of Provider A’s childcare bills, Pridgeon at first tried to claim that it was legitimate, according to the complaint. While Pridgeon was there, however, her boss called the number listed for Provider A and confirmed there was no childcare business there.
When the supervisor informed Pridgeon “it appeared as though someone had been committing fraud,” Pridgeon stated to cry, according to the complaint.
Pridgeon was placed immediately on administrative leave and personally escorted out of the building by her supervisor, the charges alleged.
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In one of the confidential trash bins, the supervisor found documents allegedly tossed there by Pridgeon, including printouts of DCFS child care providers that had been “inactivated” by Pridgeon in the computer system that day in an alleged effort to hide the fraud, according to the complaint.
State records show Pridgeon earned $62,000 a year at DCFS. A spokesperson for the agency was not immediately available for comment.
Pridgeon, meanwhile, also was granted a $20,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan in 2021 to help pay employees for what she said was a Chicago-based consulting company, federal records show.
Illinois’ long-troubled child welfare agency has come under heavy criticism under Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Last year, a state audit found that DCFS failed to ensure adequate care for children in its charge and has not properly tracked cases referred by people who are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, the Tribune reported.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office represents more than 7,000 children involved in the child welfare system, told the Tribune the agency is “is in the worst shape it’s been in 30 years.”