$2M Payday for Fla. Mom Accused of Abuse

Mom accused of handcuffing adopted kids has collected millions in child welfare.

Aug. 1, 2007 — -- The woman accused of abusing, starving and holding nine adults and teenagers captive in her ritzy Florida home may have received as much as $2 million in child welfare payments, authorities tell ABC News.

Judith Leekin, 62, allegedly duped four different New York City adoption agencies into allowing her to adopt 11 children, all of whom authorities believe she later abused, between 1993 and 1996. Florida authorities say that Leekin used as many as five different aliases to remain undetected while she adopted multiple children, applied for credit cards and paid mortgages with the money intended for the children.

"She received between $1.5 [million] and $2 million for sure," said Robert Vega, a spokesman for the Port St. Lucie Police Department. "But we have not gone through all her financial documents so far so the figures will probably change."

While 10 of the 11 adopted by Leekin have been found, one still remains unaccounted for.

The 10th person, who was not found in the home at the time of the police investigation, is a 19-year-old male who authorities tell ABC News has stories that echo the horrific claims made by the other nine adoptees.

And even though he had not been under Leekin's care for more than two years, authorities say that Leekin continued to collect state-issued funds on his behalf throughout his absence.

The Port St. Lucie Police Department was led to Leekin's home after locating an abandoned 18-year-old woman who told officers that her mother, now known to be Leekin, kept all of her children tied up in various parts of her Florida home.

Upon arriving at the home for initial investigations, authorities told ABC News that they found it hard to believe the young woman's story.

"The home was a beautiful, well-maintained home in a very nice neighborhood," said Robert Vega, a spokesman for the Port St. Lucie Police Department. "The landscaping is probably the nicest in the entire neighborhood."

After further investigation and being granted entrance by Leekin, however, authorities were shocked to find eight people being held hostage in one of the home's bedrooms.

"[The victims] initially denied being handcuffed. They seemed brainwashed or in fear of their lives," said Vega. "These people have lived there for some time and we think they all came at different times, between 10 and 15 years ago. None of them appeared to have an education past the fourth-grade level."

Fraudulent school documents allegedly filed by Leekin are currently being investigated, authorities tell ABC News.

The victims, who range in age from 15 to 27, told authorities they were kept handcuffed to one another, forced to sleep on tile floors on only a single bed sheet and were prohibited from going to the bathroom. As a result, they were forced to soil themselves.

"There were handcuffs and zip ties in the house," said Vega. "There were locks on certain doors — more than just a regular, typical lock that you'd have for a bedroom."

When asked why Leekin had voluntarily allowed officers to search her home when she knew what they would find, Vega said, "I have no idea."

The New York City Administration for Children's Services is calling the alleged adoption scam "extraordinary."

Potential adoptive parents must meet strict requirements in order to adopt a child and Leekin would have needed as many as three witnesses per adoption to testify to adoption agencies about her character and parenting abilities.

An ACS spokesperson told ABC News that these witnesses are being probed by authorities.

"It's abhorrent to everyone at Children's Services and the larger child welfare community who work so hard to identify strong, loving adoptive families to think that someone would adopt children and then mistreat them," said ACS Commissioner John B. Mattingly in a written statement.

Leekin is being held on $4.5 million bail at the Port St. Lucie County jail. She also faces several counts of child abuse — including four counts of abuse of an elderly or disabled person because because five of the nine found were handicapped — in addition to charges of false identification and witness tampering.

Mario Garcia, Leekin's lawyer, said that his client is "very saddened by the allegations" and is "distraught that she has been characterized as someone who would mistreat her children."

One of Leekin's neighbors said that until a few weeks ago, he would see the children playing outside. One boy, who the neighbor suspects may be autistic, would spend the day picking weeds on the front lawn.

"It's a very quiet neighborhood and all the children would wave nicely and get out of the way of the cars," said Gary Howard, one of Leekin's neighbors. "They were good children."

All of the adoptees found by police in the home are currently under the care of the Department of Children and Families in Florida.

"At this point in time, the department is conducting assessments to make sure [the victims] are being taken are of and we are taking every measure to make sure they are healthy — mentally and physically — and are on their way to full recovery," said Erin Geraghty, a spokeswoman for the Florida agency. "This is a tragic situation and we're doing all we can so that the children and adults are happy and healthy and know they're taken care of."