A federal lawsuit claims New York City failed to properly screen a woman who used fictitious identities to adopt 10 disabled children and later repeatedly abused, starved and imprisoned them in a "house of horrors."
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court on behalf of the children whom Judith Leekin, 64, adopted over an eight-year period ending in 1996.
The suit charged that a rapacious Leekin was able to carry out the scam in which she fraudulently collected $1.68 million in adoption subsidies because the city's Administration for Children's Services didn't do its job.
The suit claims that ACS was a "maze of dysfunctional bureaucracy" and could have easily exposed the scheme with some simple legwork such as contacting Leekin's neighbors and employers.
Lawyers seeking $15 million for each child
At a news conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., attorney Howard Talenfeld said New York City officials didn't even do "the most basic verifications" to determine whether Leekin would be a fit parent to adopt the children.
Talenfeld added: "The city of New York has not done one thing to help these children."
Lawyers for the children say they're seeking at least $15 million for each child.
Earlier this year, Leekin was sentenced in Florida state court to 20 years in prison. She also was sentenced in New York to serve 11 years in federal prison for fraud.
Leekin, a high school dropout from Trinidad, lived in Florida with the children when the fraud finally was revealed in July 2007. She adopted the children in New York City and moved to Florida in 1998, continuing to outwit ACS officials with seemingly little effort, according to the lawsuit.
ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein said the agency had "done everything possible to aid in the criminal investigation" and denied the city hadn't helped the children after Leekin's arrest.
Stein said the city "intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit."
Infant died in her care
The suit also contends that in 1988 a newborn was placed in Leekin's care who died less than a month later from supposed "crib death." The suit says ACS didn't conduct an "appropriated investigation" into the infant's death — one that would have revealed she had four other children, including three of the children named in the lawsuit.
Authorities say Leekin also deprived the children of medical care and school. All of Leekin's children are now adults ranging in age from 17-28 and living in Florida.
They suffer from anxiety, depression, retardation, rickets, Vitamin D deficiencies from lack of sun, and verbal and cognitive impairments, their lawyers said. Five live at a group home for developmentally disabled adults, including 18-year-old Ray who has autism.
At the news conference, Ray sat at a long, wood table, flanked by his two attorneys, dressed in a light purple button-down shirt, his left eye wandering behind his glasses. He stared at the table mostly the entire time, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.
'I didn't feel comfortable in that house'
But he was clear when it came to his former adoptive mother. He was glad to be rid of Leekin, who claimed she loved her children.
"I feel good because I was out of that house," he said. "I didn't feel comfortable in that house." He said he and his adopted siblings were beaten with "weapons and knives and other stuff."
At one point, with help from his attorneys, he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt to reveal straight-line scars on his wrists and arms from being tied and handcuffed while in Leekin's care.
"I feel like I was nothing after I left that house," he added.
The suit says Leekin fostered at least 22 children. One is missing and presumed dead.