One Woman, 11 Adoptions and a Time of Urgency
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
Published: August 2, 2007
Judith Leekin, who was charged by Florida prosecutors yesterday with abusing 11 children she had adopted from New York City, has been described by the authorities as a devious swindler adept at gaming the child welfare bureaucracy.
But those who know the history of the New York foster care system say it is probably not coincidental that Ms. Leekin completed all but one of those adoptions, for which she received continuing government subsidies, between 1994 and 1996.
In those years, with the number of children in foster care above 40,000, there was tremendous pressure from the governor’s mansion in Albany on down through city agencies to place more foster children into permanent homes through adoption.
To achieve that goal, numerous initiatives were put into place to streamline the adoption process, and even eventually to punish foster care agencies that failed to meet that goal.
With that push, the number of adoptions of children in foster care did in fact soar, more than doubling from 1992 to 1997, reaching a peak of about 4,000 in 1997.
Philip Coltoff, who then was executive director of the Children’s Aid Society, one of the city’s most prominent contract foster care agencies, said the surge in adoptions felt risky at the time, given how overwhelmed the city’s child welfare system was. “Everyone has to be worried about volume increases like that,” he said, “and whether there is capacity to maintain good quality and monitoring.”
Ms. Leekin adopted children through four agencies and is accused of using more than four aliases to do so.
It was not until 1999, in response to federal mandates, that safeguards like fingerprinting and federal criminal background checks were required of families seeking to adopt. (Before 1999, adoptive parents did have to meet certain requirements, including home visits, checks with the state’s central registry for child abuse allegations, and proof that biological children were thriving.)
Ms. Leekin was charged yesterday in Florida with 10 felonies: four counts of aggravated child abuse and other crimes, including witness tampering and possession of a false driver’s license. Ms. Leekin’s lawyer, Mario Garcia, said that his client denied the allegations and would plead not guilty to the charges.
“She is very distraught with how she is being characterized,” said Mr. Garcia, adding that Ms. Leekin “expressed love for her children.”
Florida prosecutors, who were tracking down some of the children who were no longer in the home, said more charges could be added. The Florida police have accused Ms. Leekin of not adequately feeding her children — most of whom are now young adults — and handcuffing them together for long periods. They also said that the children were never educated above a fourth-grade level.
Lev Evans, state prosecutor for St. Lucie County, Fla., said he expected the case to go to trial, though perhaps not for a year.
Officials with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services said yesterday that their investigation has so far found that Ms. Leekin received approximately $1.26 million in adoption subsidies — a combination of city, state and federal funds — from the mid-1990s through last month.
Those subsidies have been cut off as a result of the current investigation.
The agency is now reviewing its adoption subsidy records for other possible cases of fraud.
In piecing together Ms. Leekin’s history, there is little question that she pursued her adoptions at a time when the city was desperate to find parents for foster children.
Starting in the late 1980s, the crack epidemic drove the city to take thousands of children into foster care. Their numbers peaked in 1991 at more than 49,000, with the average length of stay in foster care stretching to four years by 1995, more than double the length six years earlier.
It was this crisis that caused prominent New Yorkers, including the state’s first lady, Matilda Cuomo, and Robert Little, head of the child welfare authority under Mayor David N. Dinkins, to focus on getting foster children out of limbo and into permanent homes.
“The legacy of the boomlet from the 1980s created a lot of pressure to get kids out of foster care,” said Fred Wulczyn, a research fellow for Chapin Hall Center for Children at University of Chicago. Starting in 1992, the state began initiating reforms, he said, “that left no part of the system untouched.”
“I am not saying it altered the nature of scrutiny of any particular family,” he said, “but they were clearly trying to expedite the process and streamline the steps.”
In interviews yesterday, neighbors who knew Ms. Leekin when she lived in Queens before she moved to Florida said that they were surprised by the allegations of abuse.
One woman, who has lived on 226th Street in Queens for about 12 years and who gave her name only as Ms. Lewis, said that she knew Ms. Leekin as a warm person who kept a clean house and gave knapsacks to local children when it was time to go back to school.
“It’s unbelievable what I’m hearing. It’s totally out of character,” Ms. Lewis said. “We knew her affectionately as Ms. Judith. She was like the block mother, really. It’s shocking.”
Carmen Gentile and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.