Criminal Case After Adoptions Spurs Review

Date: 2007-08-01
Source: nytimes.com

Criminal Case After Adoptions Spurs Review

By CARA BUCKLEY

Child welfare workers in New York City said yesterday that they were poring over hundreds of records for possible cases of adoption fraud and abuse after a woman who adopted 11 foster children, and collected subsidies for them, was arrested in Florida and charged with abusing and neglecting the teenagers and young adults living under her care.

The city’s Administration for Children’s Services could not yet say how much money the woman, Judith Leekin, 62, collected over the years from city, state and federal agencies in New York. She is accused of using fake identification and multiple aliases in adopting the children in New York over several years in the mid-1990s. A police official in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where Ms. Leekin was arrested, put the figure in the millions of dollars.

“We haven’t gone through all her financial paperwork, but a good estimate is that she received between $1.5 and $2 million over the years,” said Officer Robert Vega, a spokesman for the Police Department in Port St. Lucie, a coastal city about 120 miles north of Miami. “And we’re not even done going through all the financial documents, so that number will likely increase.”

Officer Vega said that Ms. Leekin, who has at least five other known aliases, was being held in a St. Lucie County Sheriff’s jail in $4 million bail. She was arrested July 18 at her pink stucco home in Port St. Lucie, where, the police said, eight of her adopted children, ranging in age from 15 to 27, were found in various stages of neglect, some with scars on their wrists and marks from being bound with zip ties or handcuffs.

According to Ms. Leekin’s arrest warrant, the youths — some appeared to be handicapped — were stunted and underweight, and had been instructed to hide if visitors came to their home. Among those found in the house were six young men, ages 15, 16, 17, 20, 23 and 26; and two young women, ages 16 and 27.

One 18-year-old woman was found last month in St. Petersburg, setting off an investigation that led to Ms. Leekin’s arrest. A tenth youth, a man, 19, was located Monday elsewhere in the state, though Officer Vega would not say where. An eleventh youth, a man, also 19, was still unaccounted for, he said. None of their names were released.

All had been adopted from foster care agencies in New York City from 1993 to 1996.

According to the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City, Ms. Leekin, who had been living in Queens, adopted the children from four agencies in the city before moving to Florida in the late 1990s. Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman with the agency, said that parents who adopt children from foster care are paid daily subsidies, depending on each child’s level of need, ending when a child turns 21.

For children 12 and over, the subsidy for a child classified as “normal” is $22.59; for a child labeled “special” it is $36.33; and for a child designated as “exceptional” it is $55.07, she said. Ms. Stein declined to disclose which categories the children adopted by Ms. Leekin were in, but said that Ms. Leekin was still collecting subsidies for three of the children until her arrest. Those subsidies have since been stopped.

Ms. Stein said the agency was currently checking records for people receiving large adoption subsidy checks, as well as investigating addresses where more than one subsidy check is sent.

The agency, she said, will also look for people who did not respond to annual requests to send in report cards, medical records or other documents to prove that the adopted children were still in their care. Ms. Leekin did file annual reports, though she might have falsified them, according to someone with knowledge of the investigation.

To adopt foster children in New York City, Ms. Leekin would have been certified first as a foster parent, Ms. Stein said, a process that included home visits, reference checks, checks with the state’s central registry for allegations of child abuse and a medical exam.

In 1999, the state began fingerprinting all would-be foster and adoptive parents and checking for criminal backgrounds, a process that conceivably would have revealed Ms. Leekin’s use of various aliases.

“She set out to deceive the system through these aliases, apparently,” Ms. Stein said.

The city will be asking the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to check whether fingerprints collected from prospective foster and adoptive parents corresponded with aliases, Ms. Stein said.

Currently, aliases are only revealed if an applicant has a criminal background, she said. Brian Marchetti, a spokesman with the state agency, said his office was working with the city agency on that matter.

Among the four nonprofit contract agencies who worked with Ms. Leekin on the adoptions were two with solid reputations with the city as service providers, HeartShare Human Service of New York and St. Joseph’s Children’s Services, according to a person with access to a state-run computer system that tracks all children with foster cases.

St. Joseph’s closed in 2001 for financial reasons. Calls made after business hours yesterday to HeartShare Human Services of New York were not returned.

Once adoptions are complete, the agency is not required to check on the families, Ms. Stein said, unless abuse is reported. Whether abuse was reported in Ms. Leekin’s case was being investigated.

Ms. Leekin lives in a stucco-style home common in South Florida. According to a neighbor, Carmen Rodriguez, 65, the place was immaculately furnished and spotless inside.

“People in the neighborhood would wonder, though, what she did for money,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

Hurricane shutters cover many of the downstairs windows and doors. According to neighbors, Ms. Leekin shuttered her home every time she left for one of her frequent trips to another home, in Sanford, Fla., just north of Orlando.

Another neighbor, Steve Fenster, 61, a retired Bronx middle school science teacher, said he was aghast at the allegations against Ms. Leekin. “The person I know, I cannot fathom her doing those things,” he said.

Ms. Leekin has a biological son, Desmond Leekin, living in Port. St. Lucie, whom the authorities were questioning. Mr. Leekin said from his home there that, on the advice of his mother’s lawyer, he would not comment on his mother’s arrest.

“He’s cooperating and telling us what he knows,” Officer Vega said of Mr. Leekin.

The four juveniles and four adults found in Ms. Leekin’s house are in the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families, according to Officer Vega. He would not disclose the location of the 18-year-old woman found in St. Petersburg.

Carmen Gentile and Leslie Kaufman contributed reporting.

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