By BENJAMIN WEISER
More than 30 years ago, a Queens foster mother was investigated and cited for scalding a boy in her care. But despite that finding, the city did nothing in the decades that followed to prevent the woman, Judith Leekin, from carrying out one of the most brazen and disturbing child welfare schemes in recent memory.
The failure of child welfare officials to bar Ms. Leekin from the system after that 1980 episode is one of the most striking revelations in new court reports filed in a Brooklyn lawsuit. Ms. Leekin was arrested in 2007; the authorities determined she had adopted 11 disabled New York foster children using aliases, then moved to Florida, where she subjected them to years of abuse — all the while collecting $1.68 million in subsidies from New York City until 2007.
Ms. Leekin’s widely publicized case has been portrayed as a colossal breakdown in New York’s adoption system. But court documents are now offering a much fuller picture of the city’s repeated lapses in detecting the abuse and fraud.
The 1980 episode, for example, occurred at Ms. Leekin’s home on 226th Street in Laurelton, Queens, the reports show. When Ms. Leekin later adopted 11 children under four aliases over an eight-year period, she listed the same address; it was never cross-checked, the reports say.
The documents include a deposition by Ms. Leekin, taken in a Fort Lauderdale prison, in which she suggests a possible motive for her use of false identities: her concern that she would be linked to the 1980 abuse episode.
The documents are part of a 2009 civil rights lawsuit against the city brought in Federal District Court on behalf of 10 of the children (the 11th disappeared while in her care and is presumed dead). The suit refers to the city’s child welfare system as “a maze of dysfunctional bureaucracy operating under unconstitutional policies and practices.” It also charges negligence by three private organizations that had city contracts to handle some of the adoptions.
The defendants all deny liability. In court documents, they depict Ms. Leekin as a sophisticated serial criminal whose extraordinary scheme fooled varied professionals and could not have been foreseen or detected, given the practices and capabilities of the time.
Lawyers for the parties all declined to comment on the suit.
But in court papers, defense experts said automated systems to cross-check for information like overlapping addresses were not available or required at the time. Fingerprinting was not mandated until 1999. There was no requirement that Social Security numbers be verified — Ms. Leekin had used false ones — nor was it the practice, the defense experts said.
“Leekin was a bold and accomplished fraudster,” wrote one expert, Gregory D. Meacham, a retired F.B.I. agent who specialized in financial crime and fraud investigations. He noted that Ms. Leekin had also misled banks, mortgage lenders and an insurance company.
Richard P. Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, added: “The cruelty that Leekin inflicted on children in her care was horrific. There is no excuse for this. At the same time, it would be speculative to suggest that her deceptions were readily observable.”
But experts retained by the children’s lawyers disagreed.
Mark E. Safarik, a retired supervisory special agent in the F.B.I.’s behavioral analysis unit at Quantico, Va., wrote that Ms. Leekin was anything but a criminal mastermind.
“Leekin used the same Laurelton address for all aliases,” he noted. “Stunningly,” he added, “she did not vary this,” even though she knew that the Laurelton address had surfaced in the 1980 investigation.
Ms. Leekin, 66, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in Manhattan in 2008. The following year, she pleaded no contest in Florida to state charges of aggravated abuse of children and of disabled adults.
In a jailhouse deposition in October, she came across as defensive and combative as she admitted hitting children as punishment, the 184-page transcript shows. She acknowledged being the subject of the early abuse report, and conceded she “probably” later used aliases out of concern that the earlier episode would have otherwise surfaced.
But she said that as she began adopting children under aliases — “Anne Marie Williams,” “Cheryl Graham,” “Michelle Wells” and “Eastlyn Giraud” — she was never asked for her passport, birth certificate or any other form of identification.
“Yes, I did some wrong things, sir, but they didn’t do their investigation,” she said, adding she had been made “a scapegoat.”
“They had references. Did they check out the references? No,” Ms. Leekin said. “You convicted me. You sentenced me. And now you want to come here to get a deposition from me, for what? The city has to take some kind of responsibility.”
Peg Hess, a former professor of social work at Columbia University retained by the plaintiffs, who has reviewed the confidential foster care and adoption records, wrote in her report that throughout the process, Ms. Leekin offered conflicting or false responses when asked about her employment history, income, education, assets and religion.
Mr. Safarik, the other plaintiff’s expert, wrote: “Had the defendants simply verified the self-reported information, her lies would have been uncovered.”
Ms. Leekin’s beating of and starving the children, her caging them and restraining them with plastic ties and handcuffs, has been detailed in earlier filings and press accounts. But Dr. Hess’s report, which also cites children’s depositions, offers perhaps the most in-depth look at the horrors inside the Leekin homes in New York and Florida.
Before he was taken in by Ms. Leekin, one child had been learning his letters and colors and how to count to 10; he spoke happily of his friends, teachers and toys, Dr. Hess wrote.
But on his first night with Ms. Leekin in July 1994, she hit his hand with a stick because he picked up a meatball with his fingers, Dr. Hess said. From that day forward, he was beaten with sticks and hangers, and forced to stand for hours at a time with clothes over his head to cover his eyes. He was also removed from school in the second grade.
He has since been found to have post-traumatic stress disorder; and today, at 21, he remains fragile, one lawyer, Theodore Babbitt, wrote to the court: “He wakes up thinking about Judith Leekin and he goes to bed thinking about her.”
Other children adopted by Ms. Leekin also remain in precarious states, Mr. Babbitt wrote. He said one 24-year-old is homeless; a 19-year-old was arrested for domestic violence; a 24-year-old is on round-the-clock suicide watch.
The reports also offer additional details on how Ms. Leekin submitted forged documents to New York to continue receiving subsidies for the children, who had physical or developmental disabilities, including autism and retardation.
From 1995 through July 2007, for example, “Cheryl Graham” was issued $338,989 in checks for the care of three children, including a boy nicknamed Moo, who had Down syndrome, according to Mr. Meacham’s report.
Ms. Leekin attached to one 2004 submission a fabricated report card showing Moo was in the ninth grade at a Florida high school, where he was receiving B’s and C’s.
But Moo was not attending high school, Dr. Hess noted. The authorities have said he disappeared around 1999, when he was about 11. Some of the children reported last seeing him very sick: coughing, suffering from diarrhea and crying. One child recalled that Ms. Leekin wrapped Moo in a blanket and said she was taking him to the doctor. Others recalled he was taken to the hospital. One remembered Moo placed in a “big purple plastic box.” None ever saw him again.
The authorities have investigated his disappearance, but have never charged anyone.