Preeminent foster child abuse lawyer and staunch advocate for child welfare reform in the state capital, Howard Talenfeld, was named a finalist as one of this year’s Most Effective Lawyers by the Daily Business Review.
Talenfeld, who recently opened Talenfeld Law, one of Florida’s first law firms dedicated to protecting injured, abused and neglected statewide and around the country, was recognized for work done as head of the Children’s Rights practice area with his former firm, Colodny Fass Talenfeld Karlinsky Abate & Webb, P.A., and the attorneys at Babbitt, Johnson, Osborne & Le Clainche, P.A.
Specifically, Talenfeld and the other attorneys were acknowledged for their work on the case of Judith Leekin. While in New York, and later in Florida, the woman assumed numerous identities to adopt mentally disabled children and defraud city welfare officials.
When police raided Leekin’s Port St. Lucie home and found adopted children starved and handcuffed, Leekin’s arrest blew open a tragic breakdown of the New York City foster care system spanning three decades and two states.
Leekin had fraudulently adopted 11 special needs children in Queens, New York, in the 1980s and 1990s, using various aliases. She then collected more than $1.68 million in government subsidies. While she lived in luxury, the children endured continuous torture, abuse, and squalor. Ten survivors were accounted for. An 11th child disappeared while in her care and is presumed dead.
Leekin went to prison, where she remains. A federal judge in New York sentenced her to 11 years in 2008 on fraud charges, and a circuit judge in St. Lucie County sentenced her to 20 years in 2009 for abuse of children and disabled adults.
That left a five-year fight for civil justice on behalf of the abused children against the agencies responsible for the children’s well-being. Two of the children had been placed in a city adoption unit, and the other eight with three private adoption agencies with city contracts, under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. On April 29, 2009, the 10 foster children filed suit against the City of New York and the adoption agencies responsible for their care. The case was filed in the Brooklyn office of the United States District Court, Eastern District of New York. (S.W. et al v. City of New York et al., CV 09-1777).
The 52-page suit charged the defendants with five counts, including two counts of violation of the federal statute 42 USC Section 1983 (see below) and three counts of negligence.
The civil case was concluded in June 11, 2014, with a $27.62 million global settlement on behalf of the victims, including a $9.7 million settlement reached with the City of New York on Dec. 6, 2012.
The case provided the plaintiff children with money not only to support themselves for the rest of their lives, but to provide them a life with a measure of dignity. The case also drew national attention upon the deficiencies of the foster care systems in Florida and New York, and broadened the discussion of the plight of foster children around the nation. That issue has forced a spotlight on foster care systems, influenced reform at local and state levels, and added to a national dialogue on how we treat our most vulnerable both pre and post adoption.
Talenfeld and co-counsel Theodore Babbitt, as plaintiffs’ Florida co-counsel, investigated the case, filed the suit and all the plaintiffs’ motions and arguments before the court, took the depositions, and participated in the settlement negotiations, working for more than five years to achieve a just outcome for the victims. This included investigating more than 30 years of agency failures in New York CityState, locating key witnesses and uncovering critical documents.
The two attorneys pursued the criminal prosecution and appeared at Judith Leekin’s New York City sentencing hearing as the voice for the children. The team also overcame summary judgment motions that challenged statute of limitations and also established case law set precedent to pursue claims many years after the events occurred using the civil rights act, 42 USC § 1983, when state negligence statute of limitations were far shorter.
The case was not without hurdles. Filing the case in federal court presented a stiff challenge to the plaintiffs, and a number of New York law firms turned down the case as co-counsel with Talenfeld and Babbitt pro hac vice. Both Babbitt and Talenfeld, as Florida lawyers representing the plaintiffs pro hac vice, were the public faces on behalf of the children in the case, which drew prominent attention in New York media.
The suit was filed as a “Section 1983” case, which entitles a plaintiff to sue in federal court for civil rights abuses at the hands of “state actors,” or state or municipal employees or agencies. These claims require proving deliberate indifference. Section 1983 is a reference to 42 U.S.C. 42 § Section 1983, a statute that traces its origins to a civil rights act passed by Congress in 1871, in response to abuses suffered by African-Americans at the hands of state and local officials in the post-Civil War South.
To prevail in a Section 1983 case, the plaintiff must prove not just simple negligence, but a standard approaching gross negligence and willful misconduct. In other words, the plaintiff must prove that authorities in the city or diocese, such as the mayor, child welfare authorities, or agency heads, were aware of the problem and repeatedly ignored it. The bar for this proof in the State of New York is slightly lower than that in some other states, in that multiple examples creating a pattern of repeated negligence can be admitted as intentional misconduct and therefore as a Section 1983 case.
This interplay of federal and state law in New York was crucial to the case’s progress.
Discovery was Herculean. The time frame went back 15, 20, andor even 30 years, before computerized records and Internet access was commonplace. Since the case involved 10 different people, it was really, in essence, 10 cases in one.
“This was 10 cases, not one, “ Babbitt said. “So everything was 10 times as difficult, and were against two clients with unlimited resources.”
The Talenfeld-Babbitt team therefore had to spend hours and days on end in New York City and Albany searching through millions of pages, digging for files related to New York City’s child welfare system and the Social Security identification and other issues. The case ultimately involved 140 depositions, 200,000 pages of documents, which were obtained testimony, including synopsis, through the and review of 2 million pages of documents. Further hampering discovery were the limitations of the disabled plaintiffs themselves, who had limited ability to communicate and convey their memories coherently. Furthermore, the team had to locate witnesses to testify.
It was a grinding process, and it took four years to achieve the summary judgment, which opened the way to negotiations for the global settlement.
This case was a companion and successor to the 1995 MarisoloI v. Pataki and Marisol v. Giuliani cases in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In those cases, 11 children suffering from abuse and neglect under the New York Children’s Services sued then-New York Governor George Pataki and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. Those two Marisol cases were settled in 1999, and served as a departure point for the Leekin case.