Kids were adopted for profit, then abused, police charge

Date: 1988-10-21

St. Petersburg Times
By Associated Press

PENSACOLA - The adoptive parents of four children have been charged with beating and starving them, forcing them to sleep on the floor and forbidding them to use indoor toilets.

''The oldest boy suffered a broken hand and a broken leg,'' Escambia County Sheriff's Cpl. Sam Peavy said. ''He'd been beaten last summer because he didn't mow the lawn properly.''

Harold Johnson, 43, and his wife, Sherry, 40, were arrested Wednesday. Each was held in the Escambia County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. Authorities said the abuse had gone on for at least two years.

Although the family received cash support payments from the state, the children, ages 9 to 13, lived on irregular meals of black-eyed peas and bread, said Escambia County sheriff's deputies.

''I think they were trying to minimize their cost so they could have more money to spend for themselves,'' said Sheriff's Sgt. Pat Howells. ''It was deliberate exploitation of the kids.''

The parents have denied the allegations but refused to make any statement to investigators, Peavy said.

The children, two boys and two girls, have been placed in a foster home.

The family was receiving aid under a federal program for people who adopt minority children or more than one sibling so that brothers and sisters can be kept together, said Chuck Bates, deputy district administrator for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS).

Aid payments are negotiated on a case-by-case basis, with a maximum of $256 per child each month.

Bates said he could not reveal how much the Johnsons were paid, but a sheriff's investigator said he understood it was $800 monthly.

''They sure weren't spending it on the children,'' Howells said. ''In fact, the four children were not even allowed to eat meals with the rest of the family. They ate their black-eyed peas and bread out on the back porch.''

The situation came to the attention of HRS officials Oct. 11 when the oldest child, a 13-year-old girl, ran away from home.

She went to the home of a friend who notified HRS, which removed the other three children from the Johnsons' house and cut off aid payments.

During a search of the home last week, deputies did not find a paddle the children said they had been beaten with, but they did dig up what was believed to be human excrement from the yard. Samples have been sent to the FBI for analysis.

The children told investigators they were given a shovel to dig holes in the yard where they would defecate and urinate, Peavy said.

He said the youngsters also said they were forced to sleep on the floor in a single room and bathe on the back porch with a bucket and garden hose.

''Everyone we talked to - neighbors, teachers, a nurse, the principal, social workers - feared something was terribly wrong in that house,'' Peavy said.

But, he said, the children wouldn't talk about it until after they were removed from the Johnson home.

''Fact is, they were scared to death,'' Peavy said. ''They felt if they said anything they'd get another beating.''

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