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Parents, employees left scrambling after school's sudden closure

The owner of Pennsylvania Autism Action Center has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Action 16's Stacy Lange explains what that means for the children.

BRODHEADSVILLE, Pa. — A center in Monroe County that served children with autism closed its doors over the summer. Families and the center's own employees said they were given no notice.

Mary Dove is one of the parents who sent her child to the Pennsylvania Autism Action Center. Dove moved her family from New Jersey to Monroe County in 2020 just so her 5-year-old son Alden could attend the school.

The facility provided therapy as well as all-day care and services to children on the autism spectrum.

Dove told Action 16 Investigates it was a perfect fit.

"It gave us hope. It gave him friends he didn't currently have. It gave us a community that we could rely on. And it's gone. It's all gone with no Plan B. No one said, 'We're struggling.' No one said that we might need to look for somewhere else," Dove said.

The center closed abruptly on July 21. Dozens of children attended speech or occupational therapy appointments at the center. About two dozen families used the center for all-day care, including Bridgette Normando and her daughter Amira. She went to PAAC five days a week for six years.

"She's becoming really aggressive at home. She's having a lot of regression, a lot less speech," Normando said.

The employees told Action 16 they were just as surprised by PAAC's closure. But the biggest shock came a few days later.

They learned that their contributions hadn't been put into their 401(k) plans for more than a month, and their health insurance had been canceled three weeks earlier.

"All the money that she owes, I need that. I'm a single mom. I'm struggling now to get school supplies for my daughter," said former PAAC employee Debra Montegari.

"I don't feel it needed to happen this way. Maybe there's information I'm not privy to, that's possible, so it just ended up happening in a really unfortunate way," said Bobbie Purcell-Clark, another former PAAC employee.

When Action 16 Investigates contacted PAAC's owner Michelle DeMarsh, she sent us to her bankruptcy attorney.

When DeMarsh filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, attorney Philip Stock advised she shut the center down immediately.

"It had gotten to the point where certain taxes hadn't been paid; employees hadn't been paid. There were issues with the 401(k) contributions. This all started to come up, and I said, 'Look, you have to shut this business down. You can't keep operating like this,'" Stock said.

Stock told Action 16 that an accountant is investigating where the employees' money went, but he's confident they'll get it all back as DeMarsh goes through the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. He said the center is owed money from insurance companies, and a court-appointed investigator is working on gathering all of that money.

Some PAAC parents tell us their children are now at the bottom of waiting lists for services. While the employees are just waiting.

"Will kids get services? Yeah, kids will get services. Will they get the services that they really want? I don't know. You know, will we as staff be compensated what we're owed? I don't know, I hope so," Purcell-Clark added.

There's no way to know when the employees of PAAC could receive what they're owed.

They took their complaints to the state police, who told Action 16 that the missing money is under investigation. Though, Stock said neither he nor his client have been interviewed as part of that investigation.

See more Action 16 stories on WNEP's YouTube channel.

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