tampabay.com

Adoptive home was jail, cops say

Nine teens and young adults are discovered starving and abused.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published July 31, 2007


PORT ST. LUCIE - They were often handcuffed, tethered together with plastic ties and allowed to soil themselves, investigators say. They had scars on their wrists. Some had burns.

None appeared to have more than a fourth-grade education, not even the adults in their 20s. All were starving.

Nine teenagers and young adults were held like prisoners in Judith Leekin's home in what appeared to be a decades-long scheme to line her pockets with the government payments she received for adopting and raising them, police say.

From the outside, Leekin's home appeared to be as ordinary as the others in this well-kept working-class neighborhood.

"Horrible, I think, would be the best word used to describe what was going on in that house," said police Capt. Scott Bartal.

Investigators have not yet confirmed the identities of the young people and have not established how long Leekin had them. But authorities believe she adopted all of them in New York City under at least five aliases over two decades.

They range in age from 15 to 27. One is blind and mumbles. One can barely walk or stand. One can't read. Authorities said they do not know if the disabilities are a result of the alleged abuse.

The case came to light on July 4, 200 miles away across the state in St. Petersburg, when police received a call from a grocery store that a teenager was there wandering aimlessly. The 18-year-old woman, who said she has been with Leekin for 13 years, said Leekin drove her there and abandoned her after telling her they were going to an amusement park.

Police and child welfare workers went to Leekin's home, but found nothing awry. Just one child was with her in the house, and Leekin told investigators the 18-year-old ran away a year ago. But police soon returned, and this time they found all the children, who had apparently been hiding on Leekin's orders.

Leekin, 62, was arrested and jailed on 11 charges, including aggravated elder and child abuse. She declined to be interviewed. Her attorney had no comment.

According to authorities, she was unemployed and lived off the monthly stipends provided by child welfare authorities in New York. She owned at least two homes and several cars. The adopted children said they had never seen a doctor or a dentist and had not been allowed to leave the house.

They were fed only noodles, and "they would have eventually starved to death," Bartal said.

The Florida Department of Children and Families authorities investigated a complaint of child abuse against Leekin in 1999, but the case was later closed. Officials would not give details.