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The city last week agreed to pay nearly $10 million to settle a lawsuit claiming that for almost two decades its child welfare system failed to protect 10 special-needs children from serious physical and emotional abuse by a Laurelton foster parent who manipulated the “dysfunctional bureaucracy” solely for financial gain.
From 1984 to 1996, Judith Leekin, 67, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Florida, used multiple false identities to foster 22 special needs children in her Laurelton home, according to a 2009 lawsuit brought against the city Administration for Children’s Services and four of its contracted foster care agencies.
During that time, the highly fragmented foster care system was a “maze of dysfunctional bureaucracy” that failed at almost every junction to stop Leekin from beating, starving and imprisoning the children under her care, the lawsuit claimed.
“In the early 1980s Leekin learned the city would pay her significant subsidies, from approximately $800 to up to $1,300 per month per child, to foster special needs children, and that neither the city nor its foster care agencies would properly investigate her fitness, monitor the children or otherwise care to learn whether the children in her custody were safe in her home,” a court document read.
While the case against the foster agencies is still open, the city Dec. 6 agreed to pay $9.7 million to the 10 victims who filed the lawsuit.
“Judith Leekin’s extraordinary criminal scheme was unprecedented,” said Bruce Strikowsky, the city’s outside counsel. “Though the city had strong legal defenses, this settlement will benefit those harmed most by Leekin — the children she abused. They have been, and continue to be, the city’s primary concern.”
Perfunctory background checks and a lax oversight system failed to discover that Leekin, a permanent resident alien until 1995, routinely changed her name, employment, religion and gender as she applied to care for young children.
In one instance, the system failed to conduct an appropriate investigation when an infant who had been in Leekin’s care for only a month died of “crib death,” the lawsuit claimed.
Leekin moved with her 10 children to Florida in 1998, where she was arrested in 2007 after authorities discovered the abuses.
In 2008, a Manhattan federal judge sentenced her to 11 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to wire and mail fraud charges stemming from her scam.
She was sentenced a year later on four counts of aggravated child abuse in Florida, where she is currently serving 20 years in the Homestead Correctional Institution.
In 1999, a New York state law was enacted that requires prospective parents who want to adopt children to provide fingerprints and go through an extensive process that includes interviews and a home study.
The 10 foster siblings, who are now between the ages of 20 and 32, live in Florida.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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