Sentencing in adoption abuse case

July 15, 2008 7:09:15 PM PDT
A woman was sentenced Tuesday to nearly 11 years in prison by a judge who cited her greed and use of fraud to adopt 11 disabled children, who authorities say were so physically and emotionally abused they can never recover. Judith Leekin, 63, looked down and repeatedly dabbed her eyes and nose with tissue as U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman ordered her to serve 10 years and 10 months, nearly three years above the maximum penalty she had agreed to in a plea deal with prosecutors.

She has been accused of treating the children like prisoners, subjecting them to beatings and handcuffs while they stayed in a locked room without food, depriving them of medical and dental care and not sending them to school.

The judge also ordered Leekin to forfeit $1.68 million to benefit the children.

"This fraud turns the philosophy of adoption and the need to provide long-term care to children - so important to our social services system ... it turns that system on its head," he said.

He said Leekin engaged in "a heartless, dangerous money-driven scheme" when she used fake names and lies about the children to defraud social service agencies in New York City and New York state.

He recommended adoption programs use mandatory fingerprinting of prospective parents and a wider investigation of backgrounds before children are placed, and he noted Leekin had been abused as a child.

"Neglect leads to neglect," he said. "Adoption is a privilege, not a right."

He said surprise visits to adoptive parents and active monitoring by government agencies also would help.

Before Leekin was sentenced, she sobbed and apologized for committing wire and mail fraud and promised to surrender all her assets.

"I love my children," she said, "and I miss them."

Leekin began adopting the children in 1988, when she lived in New York City. A decade later, she moved to Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Florida authorities have charged her with aggravated child abuse and aggravated abuse of disabled adults, and she could face as much as 120 years in prison if she is convicted of those and other charges.

Prosecutors say the high school dropout from Trinidad lived lavishly while forcing the adopted children to sleep on the floor of a storage room next to a garage and banning them from entering the house except to use the bathroom or kitchen.

The children are now aged 16 to 28. Nine are in foster or group homes. Another lives on his own in Florida. One child is missing and presumed dead.

Attorney Howard M. Talenfeld, speaking on behalf of 10 of the children, told the judge that none of the children could testify before him because they were too damaged by the abuse.

He said one child was afraid to face Leekin again while five others who were capable of speaking were not brought before the court because social-services professionals advised that they would be further emotionally and psychologically damaged by the experience.

Chief Assistant Public Defender Diamond R. Litty, who represented Leekin, noted her client was cooperating and surrendering all assets. She said many of the allegations are uncorroborated and at least six of the children have said they "miss their mother and still love her."

Talenfeld said he was most troubled by the 2000 disappearance of a child who suffered from Down syndrome, autism and sickle cell anemia.

He said some of his siblings were told the child, who would be 19 today, was taken to a hospital while others were told he was buried in the back yard.


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