Thursday, July 17, 2008

New York woman's adoption fraud and abuse:
"Neglect leads to neglect ... Adoption is a privilege, not a right."

From the Associated Press (USA Today); The New York Times:

NEW YORK (AP) — A woman from Trinidad who lied to adopt 11 disabled children whom authorities say she abused while she raked in more than $1 million in subsidies was sentenced Tuesday to nearly 11 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman said Judith 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.

Leekin, 63, 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. Authorities said the children were so physically and emotionally abused they can never recover.

Leekin looked down and repeatedly dabbed her eyes and nose with tissues as 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.

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.

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

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

The children, now ages 16 to 28, suffer from a variety of severe mental and physical disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome. Leekin began adopting them in 1988, when she lived in New York City. A decade later, she moved to Port St. Lucie, Florida.

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.

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. Nine of the children are now in foster or group homes. Another lives on his own in Florida. One child is missing and presumed dead.

Talenfeld 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.

Leekin's lawyer Diamond R. Litty noted that her client was cooperating and surrendering all her 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 backyard.

The judge recommended that adoption programs use mandatory fingerprinting of prospective parents and a wider investigation of backgrounds before children are placed, and suggested surprise visits to adoptive parents and active monitoring by government agencies.

Berman also noted that Leekin had been abused as a child.

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