Four children sue HRS over adoptive parents
St. Petersburg Times
By Associated Press
Four children who say their adoptive parents beat and starved them for three years have sued a state agency for allowing the adoptions.
A court-appointed lawyer filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of the children, whose ages range from 11 to 15. The suit seeks unspecified damages from the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).
The agency allowed Harold and Sherry Johnson of Pensacola to become foster parents for three of the children, all siblings, in 1985 even though a child of Mrs. Johnson's had been removed from the couple's home in 1979 because of alleged abuse, said Bob Kerrigan, the children's attorney.
The Johnsons were permitted to adopt the first three youngsters in 1986 and the fourth the next year under a federal program that paid them $715 a month. The program subsidizes low-income people who adopt minority children or more than one sibling.
""HRS failed to check their own records about it,'' Kerrigan said Wednesday. ""What we have indicates that this abuse situation . . . was continuous after they were placed with these people in 1985.''
The Johnsons pleaded no contest to aggravated child abuse and malicious punishment last year and were sentenced to a year in the Escambia County Jail, but Johnson said Circuit Judge William Anderson allowed them to go home after less than three months.
The couple Wednesday denied abusing any of the youngsters, including Mrs. Johnson's child. They said the adopted children were ""hard kids'' who lied about being abused. They said they would testify on behalf of HRS but also criticized the agency.
""I think all of it is a bunch of mess,'' Johnson said. ""They didn't screen the children right. HRS did a search on me and my wife. They did a fine job on me and my wife. The job they didn't do was a proper check on the kids. . . . We never had any previous jail record at all until we got into contact with those bad kids.''
Rod Johnson, HRS district legal counsel, declined to comment, saying he had not seen the suit.
Kerrigan said an HRS counselor visited the home a month after the first three children were placed in foster care and reported the youngsters were unhappy there, but monthly visits did not continue.
The children told teachers and school principals they were being abused, but nothing was done until one of them ran away from home in October 1988, Kerrigan said. The runaway told a friend she had been abused, and authorities were notified.
The other three children were removed from the home the next day. Kerrigan refused to say where they are living now.
They were diagnosed as suffering from malnutrition, Kerrigan said. He said the children have accused their adoptive parents of beating them, failing to provide proper medical treatment and feeding them a diet that consisted primarily of peas and bread.
They were not allowed to use the bathroom inside the house and bathed with a water hose and bucket on the back porch, the lawyer said.