Eight in Adoption Abuse Case Agree to $17.5 Million Settlement With Foster Agencies
by BENJAMIN WEISERAUG
Eight young adults with disabilities who were fraudulently adopted by a Queens woman and subjected to years of abuse have agreed to a $17.5 million settlement of their lawsuit against three private New York foster care agencies that had placed them with the woman, a new court filing shows.
The woman, Judith Leekin, 69, who adopted the children in the 1980s and ’90s, was arrested in 2007 in Florida, where she had moved with them. She was later convicted of fraud and abuse charges and is serving a lengthy prison sentence.
The case has long been seen as a horrific breakdown in the city’s foster care system. The authorities said Ms. Leekin used false names to adopt 11 children — one disappeared while in her care and is presumed dead — and she collected $1.68 million in subsidies from New York that were intended for their care but went to support her own lavish lifestyle.
In December 2012, New York agreed to pay $9.7 million to settle its portion of the 2009 lawsuit, including claims by two of the children; they had been placed with Ms. Leekin through a city-run adoption unit. The city denied liability in the case.
The combined settlements in the case now total just over $27 million, including legal fees and costs. The children, most of whom are now in their 20s, had physical, emotional or developmental disabilities, including autism and blindness. In a January ruling that allowed the lawsuit against the private agencies to proceed, Judge Eric N. Vitaliano, of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, offered what he called “a glimpse of life in Leekin’s house of horrors.”
“The story is undisputedly sad and tragic,” the judge wrote, citing findings by Peg McCartt Hess, a former Columbia University social work professor who had been retained by the plaintiffs to review the cases.
The judge said Ms. Leekin had routinely denied the children access to food and a toilet; handcuffed and restrained them for hours; trapped them in cribs that were held shut with boards and heavy objects; beat them with a belt, a nightstick and other objects; forced them to stand for hours, sometimes with their hands above their heads; failed to protect them from sexual abuse; and repeatedly threatened them with a gun or with being beaten to death.
When they were removed from her care in 2007, only three could read (at a third-grade level), and six were declared either “totally incapacitated” or “vulnerable adults,” the judge noted, citing Dr. Hess’s findings.
The latest settlement, detailed in the court filing on Monday, covers the eight children who were placed with Ms. Leekin by the private agencies. Judge Vitaliano must still approve the deal, which was reached in June with the assistance of a mediator, the filing said.
A vast majority of the net proceeds, said Howard M. Talenfeld, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, will be paid through annuities or trusts “to ensure that these children will have the support and therapeutic services necessary to address the lifetime of challenges they face after surviving their appalling abuse by Judith Leekin.”
The private agencies that were defendants in the suit are HeartShare Human Services of New York, SCO Family of Services and the now-closed St. Joseph Services for Children and Families. The agencies denied liability. HeartShare said it “chooses not to make any comment” about the settlement, while SCO referred a reporter to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees the foster care system. The two private agencies still have foster care contracts with the city.
A Children’s Services spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday, but when the city settled in 2012, the agency said, “There are much more sophisticated systems in place today that would never allow this kind of fraud to be perpetrated on the city or our children.”