Suit Contends City Failed to Prevent Adoption Fraud
By BENJAMIN WEISER
New York City violated the rights of 10 disabled children who were adopted more than a decade ago by a former Queens woman who abused them and used government subsidies meant for their care to support a lavish lifestyle, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, claims that the woman, Judith Leekin, 64, who is now in prison, was able to carry out her scheme for so long because the city’s child welfare authorities did not adequately investigate her fitness as a mother or monitor the children’s care in her home.
“The bottom line here is to seek damages for all of these children because of the destruction, essentially, of their childhoods,” said Thomas A. Moore, one of the children’s lawyers. “They need huge intervention,” he added, “therapy on many levels.”
Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children’s Services, said the city “intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit.” She said that the agency had done “everything possible” to aid in the criminal investigation of the abuse. She said that Ms. Leekin’s scheme also defrauded the Family Court, lawyers and other professionals.
Ms. Leekin, who adopted the children using four aliases and later moved to Florida, collected $1.68 million in subsidies before her fraud was discovered in 2007, a federal indictment showed.
The case drew enormous public attention, shedding light on a colossal breakdown in the child welfare system.
The children, including some who were profoundly retarded, were kept captive in Ms. Leekin’s home, were physically abused or restrained with plastic ties, and were not adequately fed, officials have said. They said that the children were kept out of school, that none could read or write, and that many had few teeth remaining from never having seen a dentist. A judge called her acts “diabolical in nature.”
Two Florida lawyers involved in the suit, Theodore Babbitt of West Palm Beach and Howard Talenfeld of Fort Lauderdale, said New York officials have refused to provide the children with what they described as any meaningful assistance in Florida since Ms. Leekin’s arrest in 2007.
“They learned no skills that would allow them to survive in this world, and yet the City of New York just turned their back a second time,” Mr. Talenfeld said.
The children, who are now in their late teens and 20s, remain mostly in foster care, group homes and other programs in Florida, the lawyers said.
Ms. Stein added that the city had “made clear its intention to work with these young people and their guardians, to best provide them with appropriate services and assistance here in New York City,” including housing, and educational, vocational, medical and mental health services.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, and comes as the child welfare agency is already under the threat of millions of dollars in budget cuts. Advocates for children fear cuts could lead to layoffs of child protective workers and increased caseloads, which would make it harder to monitor children in the system.
The suit also names three private organizations that contracted with the city and were involved in some of the adoptions.
The lawsuit, calling the city’s child welfare system “a maze of dysfunctional bureaucracy operating under unconstitutional policies and practices,” says Ms. Leekin was able to obtain custody of the children because she was aware of the system’s “egregious” failures.
In the early 1980s, the suit says, she learned that the city would pay her “significant subsidies,” from about $800 to $1,300 a month per child, to foster and adopt children with physical or mental disabilities.
Using the aliases to create four false identities, she adopted 11 children — one is missing and presumed dead. In some cases, she used stolen Social Security numbers, including one that belonged to a man, the suit says. “Defendants failed to conduct even the simplest Social Security number verifications to confirm Leekin’s identity,” the suit says.
The suit contends that child welfare workers failed to adequately monitor the children in her home, that caseworkers did not make surprise visits, and that she often rescheduled home visits or simply was not at home when caseworkers arrived.
“Caseworkers ignored the most basic of warning signs and red flags,” the suit says.
In 1988, a newborn placed with Ms. Leekin died of “crib death” within a month, the suit says. It also says that no “appropriate investigation” was done into the death, adding that such an inquiry would have revealed that Ms. Leekin had four additional children in her home, obtained through two other agencies.
One of the children was placed with her two days after the infant’s death, the suit says.