A former treasurer of an east Suffolk playgroup has been given a 16-month prison sentence suspended for two years after defrauding the group of £17,000.

Ipswich Crown Court heard the fraud resulted in staff being underpaid and meant money could not be set aside for a new building.

Gemma Pearse, 33, of Porters Field, Braintree, previously pleaded guilty to charges of defrauding Knodishall Playgroup of the sum by making bank transfers to herself and of falsifying an account during a five-year period from January 1, 2017, to March 17, 2022.

Jessica Kersey, director of the group, which provides care, education and play for children aged between two and five, said: “It’s heartbreaking how much we suffered for so many years along with the community and the children and we just hope she suffers with her guilty conscience.”

The court heard Pearse made payments to herself under false payee names, including electrical bill payments which were actually going to her own account.

Prosecution barrister Adam Budworth said this meant children and staff were encouraged to move around and wear more jumpers to keep costs down.

East Anglian Daily Times: Knodishall Playgroup in east SuffolkKnodishall Playgroup in east Suffolk (Image: Google Maps)

On top of this the court heard a lockbox was sometimes used to take payments for classes from parents and that Pearse would take the money out of this box.

However, when challenged about the failure to record cash payments made through the box Pearse accused playground staff of stealing from it when she had the only key, the court heard.

When it was uncovered that Pearce had been taking money, her husband Matthew, who she has since divorced,  “attended the playground and began a tirade of shouting toward the staff”, Mr Budworth told the court.

He made assurances that money owed would be paid and told staff not to take legal action and “drag Gemma’s name through the mud”, the court heard.

Pearse has since paid back some £46,000 using money from the sale of the house she shared with her ex-husband and children.

However, the court heard there has been ongoing defamation and slander from Pearce and her family towards the playgroup.

East Anglian Daily Times: Staff from the Knodishall Playgroup outside Ipswich Crown CourtStaff from the Knodishall Playgroup outside Ipswich Crown Court (Image: Newsquest)

Simon Gladwell spoke in mitigation and said Pearse “is very ashamed and remorseful”.

He added: “There were difficulties at home with her then husband.

“She would have to ask him for money in order to support the three children,” he said.

Passing sentence, Judge Martyn Levett took into account the impact a custodial sentence would have on her children.

He said: “These cases sometimes are not principally about the amount of money, they are about the harm that theft and fraud and dishonesty can cause people.

“Especially in cases where underfunding can cause a real hardship for parents and people who are far more deserving.

He added: “You are a risk to any other gullible charity.”

“The reason why it has caused harm is that the wages for staff were kept at bare minimum, the maintenance work for premises was cheaply fixed and the fundraising for a new building was prolonged.

“I suspect you are remorseful but I suspect that is simply because you were caught.”

He gave her a 16-month imprisonment sentence suspended for two years, with 200 hours of unpaid work to be completed in 12 months.

Judge Levett added being late by 10 minutes to one of the work sessions would be regarded as a breach.

He added: “The public have come to regard suspended sentences as not so much of a punishment, but this one will be for you.”

Gwen Haxell, the new treasurer, said: “Initially I would have preferred she was given a custodial sentence, but we do know she has four young children and it would be unfair to them.”

Ms Kersey added that three of those children had gone to the playgroup and they continued to look after them even when there was evidence of the fraud.