WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A Florida woman accused of using aliases to adopt 11 New York children received as much as $2 million in child welfare payments even as she starved, bound and abused them, police said Tuesday.
Investigators initially believed Judith Leekin, 62, had adopted nine children, but authorities in New York said Tuesday that Leekin adopted 11 children in all from New York City's foster care system between 1993 and 1996.
Authorities believe Leekin held the adopted children like prisoners in her Port St. Lucie home, often handcuffing them together and forcing them to soil themselves because they weren't allowed to use the bathroom.
"It's abhorrent," said John B. Mattingly, commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children's Services.
Leekin remained jailed in lieu of $4.5 million bail on 11 charges, including counts of aggravated child abuse, false identification and witness tampering, as well as four counts of aggravated abuse of a disabled adult.
Leekin's lawyer said his client denies the allegations.
"She indicated that she loved these children, that she took care of them," Mario Garcia said. "She nurtured them and fed them."
According to the children's services administration, Leekin used aliases to fraudulently adopt the children and had been receiving welfare payments at different addresses and bank accounts until her arrest in July.
Florida authorities said they located a 19-year-old man Monday who was among the 11 adopted by Leekin but had left the home two years ago. Police say Leekin was still collecting payments from the New York agency for his care.
"He had similar stories, similar scars and marks on his body from his wrists to his ankles where he alleges he was also handcuffed and tied to other people," Port St. Lucie Police spokesman Robert Vega said Tuesday.
Authorities were still trying to locate an 18-year-old whom Leekin adopted from New York, Vega said.
Police believe Leekin received as much as $2 million over the years from the New York child welfare agency, he said.
Parents who adopt special needs children in New York City can get as much as $55 a day until the child turns 21.
"We are working with law enforcement to provide them with all available records to aid in the investigation," Mattingly said. "We are also doing everything possible to see how this individual was apparently able to adopt children using multiple false identities."
The children's services administration noted that it began fingerprinting adults who adopted children out of foster care in 1999 — after Leekin's adoptions were processed. The agency is searching its records from all adoption agencies to root out any other fraudulent adoption cases, Mattingly said.
The case came to light July 4 when an 18-year-old woman was found wandering in a grocery store in St. Petersburg, about 200 miles away from Leekin's home. The woman told police Leekin had adopted her 13 years ago and abandoned her at the store that day.
Investigators found eight other children and handicapped adults, ranging in age from 15 to 27, in Leekin's home. All had scars on their wrists, and some had burns.
None appeared to have more than a fourth-grade education, not even the adults in their 20s. They told authorities they had never seen a doctor or a dentist and all were near starvation, police said.