Thursday, July 17, 2008

Former Queens Woman Sentenced to 130 Months for Adoption Fraud

By Conor Greene

A former Queens woman has been sentenced to nearly 11 years in prison for defrauding the state and city out of more than one million dollars through an adoption scheme. She is now facing criminal charges in Florida for allegedly abusing nearly a dozen adopted children.

Judith Leekin, 63, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., pleaded guilty in May to stealing about$1.68 million in adoption subsidies meant to pay for the care of her 11 adopted children, many of who were physically or mentally disabled. On Tuesday, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced she has been sentenced to 130 months in prison by District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan federal court.

“For almost 20 years, Judith Leekin manipulated a system intended to protect the welfare of New York City’s neediest children,” said U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia. “Today, she will begin paying for the years that she spent caring more about the $1.68 million she stole than she did for the children she was entrusted to protect.”

Leekin is now to return to Florida, where she is scheduled to appear in court in August on abuse charges stemming from her treatment of the children under her care. She is accused of beating, starving and restraining the children and faces life in prison if convicted on those charges.

Judge Berman also ordered Leekin to surrender two homes she owns in Florida and pay back the stolen money. While the plea agreement finalized in May called for a prison sentence of six-and-a-half to eight years, the judge was allowed to sentence her for up to 20 years for each of the two counts.

In the weeks leading up to the sentencing, officials including Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the city Department of Investigations and attorneys representing the abused children wrote to the judge urging him to issue a harsh sentence.

“Leekin perverted New York City’s adoption subsidy program and in so doing crush the childhoods of children she adopted by causing them irreparable pain and suffering, including by keeping the children locked away,” she said following the sentencing.

Leekin adopted the children in New York between 1988 and 1996 before moving for Florida. When applying to the state Office of Children and Family Services and the city Administration of Children’s Services, she used four different fake names and lied about how many other children were in her care. She “used the money to support a lavish lifestyle for herself” while neglecting the children, said authorities.

While living in Queens with 12 children (authorities are unsure as to the whereabouts of the twelfth child) in 1997, Leekin forced the 11 adopted children to live in the basement and forbid them from going outside or to school. Several were restrained while in bed to prevent them from getting up.

After moving to Florida, the 11 children “lived in a similar manner,” with 10 of the children forced to live in a storage room next to the garage, only allowed to enter the house to use the bathroom or kitchen. Several “were restrained using plastic ties,” said authorities.

(AP Photo/St. Lucie County Sheriff's Dept., File)