A woman accused of abusing her 11 adopted children and bilking New York City out of nearly $1.3-million gained custody of the kids through six separate adoption processes using four fakes names, authorities said Thursday.
Judith Leekin, 62, of Port St. Lucie, used the four aliases at separate agencies in New York City to adopt the children between July 1988 and April 1996 and never used her real name, said Sharman Stein, a spokeswoman for the New York City Administration for Children's Services.
Stein said that Leekin received $1.26-million in stipends to help care for the kids.
Authorities in Florida, however, say she received up to $2-million in payments from New York City. They say the children - who now range in age from 15 to 27 - told them Leekin never took them to see a doctor or dentist and never allowed them to attend school.
Leekin is charged with 10 counts of abuse, among other things. She allegedly handcuffed the children and tethered them together at night, forcing them to sleep on a cold tile floor and not allowing them to go to the bathroom. She could get up to 190 years in prison if convicted on all counts, prosecutors said.
Her attorney, Mario Garcia, said he filed a not guilty plea.
Leekin's biological son spoke out recently in his mother's defense.
"She's a loving caring mom and grandma," the son told WCBS-TV in New York City in a report aired Wednesday. The station did not name him and did not show his face.
"You don't see me driving a BMW," he said. "I'm renting my apartment. The $2-million I'd love to see."
Port St. Lucie police have said Leekin would likely face more charges and that others could be arrested for helping her.
The Florida Department of Children and Families investigated a complaint of child abuse against Leekin in 1999, but the case was later closed and the records are sealed.
"There was absolutely no indication of child abuse on any of the victims that they saw at that time," DCF spokeswoman Ellen Higinbotham said.
However, New York City officials said they have no record of Florida ever contacting them in 1999, a move that may have raised red flags since Leekin never used her real name to adopt the children.
"But that would be considered part of standard practice if they wanted to see what the earlier jurisdiction might have known about this individual," Stein said.
Higinbotham could not say whether such a call was made. But she said DCF investigators wouldn't be required to determine whether the children were adopted or where they were from. She declined to say whether DCF knew that these children had been adopted in New York.
People who adopt special-needs children in New York City can get as much as $55 a day until the child turns 21. Stein said all the children adopted by Leekin have special needs.
Police were still searching for an 18-year-old believed to have been among the 11 adoptees.