Abused kids to get $14 million in settlement

Date: 2007-09-29

Abused kids get $14 million

State officials will pay $14 million to settle lawsuits involving 20 children who were abused while they were in the care of a Gainesville woman, attorneys for the children and the Florida Department of Children and Families confirmed Friday.

The money will be divided among the children who had lived with Nellie Jasper Johnson, 64. They testified at her 2003 trial that they were beaten, force-fed until they vomited, and made to fight one another.

Johnson is serving a 60-year prison sentence at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County for 14 counts of aggravated child abuse, 12 counts of child abuse, three counts of tampering with a witness or victim, and two counts of child neglect.

Johnson's adopted daughter, Colony Latrisa Johnson, 24, also was convicted at the Gainesville trial and is serving a 15-year prison sentence at Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy on three counts of aggravated child abuse and three counts of child abuse.

Nellie Johnson had cared for more than 25 children, many of whom she had adopted, after becoming a Florida foster parent in 1991, according to attorneys. In 2001, the Florida Department of Children & Families removed 17 children from her home after one child came forward with allegations of abuse.

Lawyers for the children later reported that DCF investigators had previously visited the woman's Gainesville home but reported the allegations were not founded or started by the children or their biological families who wanted to regain custody. During a two-month period in 1997, investigators went to the home seven times but didn't pursue allegations. Nellie Johnson was allowed to remain while some children were interviewed and was sometimes informed prior to their visits that investigators were coming.

One DCF investigator, however, did a further review against the wishes of her supervisor, leading to criminal charges against the two women, according to the children's attorneys.

Lawyers for the children said the children were beaten with sticks, pipes, belts, extension cords and paddles during more than 10 years of abuse.

The settlement involved federal civil rights claims filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and a negligence claim filed in Alachua County.

Gainesville attorney Gloria Fletcher and Howard Talenfield, from a Fort Lauderdale law firm, were involved in the case.

"The damage done to these children, you cannot conceive or imagine some of the physical and emotional harm that was done to these people," Fletcher said Friday.

The children involved in the cases now are in their mid-teens to mid-20s, Fletcher said. Some remain in the Gainesville area.

"The facts of the case are clear - the system failed these children," said DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth in a statement Friday. "We are one state, and as one state we cannot prosecute a perpetrator for their crimes and then later ask that the victims prove those crimes occurred. We must acknowledge wrongdoing when it occurs and then do all that we can to make sure victims, especially innocent children, receive the services and the treatment they need to find closure and move forward."

Settlements with some of the children were reached last year while other cases were settled in June, according to DCF.

The children's attorneys praised Butterworth for his work toward a settlement.

Fletcher said there still is pending legal action involving private groups who placed the children with Nellie Johnson.

Lise Fisher can be reached at 352-374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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