NY woman pleads guilty in adoption scam

Date: 2008-05-20
Source: wcbstv.com

NY Woman Pleads Guilty In Adoption Scam

NEW YORK (AP) ― A woman accused of raking in more than $1 million in subsidies for adopting 11 disabled children while keeping them like prisoners in her Florida home pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal fraud charges.

Judith Leekin, 63, admitted she used false names to adopt the children and sent officials phony school report cards to qualify for the adoption subsidies. She also admitted restraining the children with plastic ties, preventing them from getting out of bed and not sending them to school.

Leekin faces a potential 6 1/2-to-8-year prison term on the federal mail and wire fraud charges. She agreed to forfeit $1.68 million in subsidies collected over nearly two decades.

"We feel it's a reasonable outcome, given the circumstances," her lawyer, Mark Harllee, said after the hearing.

Dressed in blue jailhouse garb, Leekin answered the judge's questions softly and calmly before federal marshals led her away. She is to be held in New York until her sentencing in the federal case, set for July 15, and then return to Florida to face abuse charges in a separate case. She has pleaded not guilty.

Harllee said he was in plea negotiations with Florida authorities.

City Department of Investigation Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn, whose agency investigated the scheme along with the FBI, said Leekin preyed on vulnerable children. DOI committed a tremendous amount of resources to prosecuting Leekin, sending investigators to Florida to build a case, Hearn said.

"I did it because of the monstrous nature of this defendant's behavior and justice for these children," Hearn said.

Leekin, a high school dropout from Trinidad, adopted the children in New York between 1988 and 1996. They all moved to Florida in 1998.

Florida authorities accused Leekin in July 2007 of mistreating the children at her home in Port St. Lucie, about 100 miles north of Miami.

They often were handcuffed, battered, deprived of food and medicine and locked in a room, authorities said. An elaborate surveillance system let Leekin keep watch over her charges via closed-circuit monitors, according to police.

Leekin never sent the children to school, and she would dead-bolt them in a passageway to hide them from unexpected visitors, authorities said.

The children, many afflicted by both physical and mental problems, told police she would threaten to shoot them or cut off their heads if they spoke out.

Prosecutors say Leekin used the adoption money to support a lavish lifestyle and submitted phony report cards and other information to keep the subsidies coming -- even after removing one of the children from her home in 2000.

The children are now 16 to 28. Nine are in foster or group homes, Harllee said. A tenth lives on his own in Florida.

Investigators also suspect that Leekin may have killed one of them, a boy named Shane Graham, and disposed of the body. Harllee declined to discuss Graham.

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