Lawsuits filed over severely abused special-needs children

Date: 2009-04-30

Kate Santich

For more than 20 years, Judith Leekin lied to New York child-welfare workers so she could adopt and abuse special-needs children, eventually moving the kids to Florida and subjecting them to "a house of horrors" while pocketing $1.68 million meant for their care.

Now, with Leekin sentenced to 20 years in prison, attorneys for 10 of those children are suing the city of New York and various child-welfare agencies for failing to monitor the children and investigate the most basic information Leekin provided, including her identity.

"This is the most horrific case of child abuse I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them," said Fort Lauderdale civil rights attorney Howard Talenfeld, co-counsel on the lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in New York. "Those kids were in her custody from 14 to 21 years. They didn't go to school, they didn't go to a doctor, they didn't grow normally, they didn't have a life. They were tortured."

The suit seeks unspecified damages and says the plaintiffs will require "services and treatment for the rest of their lives due to severe psychological trauma." They are now in their late teens and early 20s.

According to the suit, the children were placed in Leekin's care from 1986 to 1994 under a variety of aliases and social-security numbers. Of 22 children who came and went over the years, these 10 were adopted "for the sole purpose of collecting the special-needs subsidies provided for their care."

One of them lived briefly in Orlando after Leekin's arrest by Florida authorities in 2007, Talenfeld said. The young man is now homeless, while other adoptees live in group homes, foster care or on their own.

Another child, a newborn, died in Leekin's care, the suit says. The other children were "chronically beaten, handcuffed, zip-tied humiliated, threatened, [hidden] from the public, locked up in a basement or garage, deprived of their educations, denied medical treatment of any kind and [were] near starvation" when they were discovered. None could read or write, and several had lost most of their teeth to decay.

Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children's Services in New York, said the city "intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit." Her agency had done "everything possible" to aid in Leekin's prosecution.

Leekin, now 64 and in prison, was ultimately arrested in July 2007 after police found a malnourished girl who appeared to be about 15 years old wandering around a grocery store in St. Petersburg. Leekin had abandoned her, Talenfeld said

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