Puzzling Turns in a Life Devoted to Children

Date: 1991-06-03

Puzzling Turns in a Life Devoted to Children
By CELIA W. DUGGER
Published: June 03, 1991

Kodzo Dobosu sits on a Harlem park bench and describes his adopted children: There's the blind son who had been whipped, and the boy with kidney disease who was expected to die, and the girl with syphilis of the spine.

There's the deaf boy who could not speak and the boy with spina bifida.

"How many children does that take us to?" Mr. Dobosu asks.

In all, the former civil rights worker adopted 35 hard-to-place youngsters over the last 20 years. He has been the subject of television tributes and national honors.

But on May 21 Mr. Dobosu's daughter, who is 14 years old and mentally handicapped, accused him of sexually abusing her.

He was led away in handcuffs, one of the puzzling recent turns in a life that social workers, colleagues and former students describe as dedicated to children. If convicted, Mr. Dobosu, 51, faces seven years in prison.

Some Earlier Accusations

Lieut. Henry Beattie of the New York City Police Department's Sex Crimes Squad said detectives were confident that Mr. Dobosu's daughter told the truth when she said her father had touched her breasts and put his finger in her vagina. She said he had abused her on more than one occasion, the lieutenant said.

Lawyers representing the city and Mr. Dobosu's children said in court that they were trying to find out more about accusations of physical or sexual abuse made against Mr. Dobosu or his children when they lived in Ohio in the 1980's. Maria Peralta, a lawyer for the New York City Human Resources Administration, said one of the Ohio accusations was that Mr. Dobosu's sons abused other children in the home.

The juvenile bureau of the Columbus Police Department in Ohio investigated two accusations involving the family, but Sgt. John Rippey declined to detail the nature of the complaints. He said neither investigation led to charges.

Mr. Dobosu maintains that he never abused his children. And many people who have known him for years said they did not think he did, either.

"How can someone be a role model to so many and be what they say?" asked Ayanna Ricco, a registered nurse who was counseled by Mr. Dobosu when she was a teen-ager.

On Striver's Row

For now, Mr. Dobosu and the 17 children still living with him inhabit a four-story brownstone on Striver's Row, a historic block on 139th Street in Harlem. Social workers who inspected the home said last week that it was poorly lighted, smelled of urine and lacked window-guards required by city law. A Family Court judge, Edward M. Kaufmann, ordered the city to provide a round-the-clock homemaker to supervise the house. The daughter who accused Mr. Dobosu of abuse was placed in foster care by Judge Kaufmann.

During a recent interview, Mr. Dobosu, who was wearing nine golden rings in one ear, a diamond stud in his nose, dozens of silver bracelets and African-style garb, sounded like a typical father as he scolded one son for carrying matches and another for wearing mirrored sunglasses.

"Why don't you take off those things?" he asked the teen-ager. "You look like a spaceman."

Mr. Dobosu was born John Love on March 25, 1940, and grew up in Harlem. He quit school when he was 16, he said, and headed South the next year, drawn by the ferment of the civil rights movement. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked as a field secretary, earning $9.65 a week, he said. He was its project director for Alabama in 1964, before the pivotal Selma-to-Montgomery march.

John Lewis, who was chairman of the coordinating committee at the time and is now a Congressman from Atlanta, remembered Mr. Love as a foot soldier of the movement who "had a sense of stick-to-it-iveness."

In the late 1960's, Mr. Dobosu said, he sought a closer connection to his African heritage and changed his name from John Love to Kojo Odo because Odo means love in the African language of Akan. He later changed his name again, to Kodzo Dobosu after tracing his ancestral roots to a village in Ghana and discovering that it had been his family name.

As the civil rights movement waned, Mr. Dobosu began working with black and Puerto Rican children in New York City. From 1971 to 1974, he was a counselor and teacher at Boys Harbor, an agency that ran a summer camp and after-school program for underprivileged youths, its executive director, Lonnie Williams, said.

As a teen-ager, Eduardo Padro, who is now a law clerk for a State Supreme Court judge in the Bronx, attended the camp on Long Island.

"A lot of the activists were preaching against going to college," Mr. Padro recalled. "They said we would be co-opted by the system and traitors to our people. But Kojo told me: 'Papi, go to school. Get your degree. Just don't forget us when you come out.' "

During Mr. Dobosu's years at Boys Harbor, he began adopting "black kids nobody wanted," he said. "I thought: 'I can take care of two black kids. That's my responsibility as a black man.' "

His first child was a 7-year-old boy from New York City with one arm. He was followed by other children from New York, as well as from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

'Like a Normal Family'

He took in a 15-year-old youth, Konata, who had spent three miserable years in foster care. Now a 31-year-old case manager for the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Family in Manhattan, Konata Dobosu works with troubled teen-agers.

"He wasn't ashamed of giving me a hug every now and then," he said of his adoptive father. "We had spats like a normal family, but he never laid a hand on us."

In 1981 and 1982, Carole Langer filmed a documentary of the family that aired in 1983 on the PBS program "Frontline."

Before he agreed to do the film, Mr. Dobosu held a family meeting with his children, which he allowed Ms. Langer to film on the condition that it would not be used if he and the children decided against doing the project. At the meeting, one boy said he was worried his friends would ask him: "How did you father get all them kids? Where's your mother?"

But an older boy said to Mr. Dobosu: "You didn't give us birth, but you gave us life. I want the film to show how one man can adopt a lot of kids."

'Hard to Understand'

Mr. Dobosu told his assembled children: "People find it hard to understand why someone would want all of you. The only way I know of explaining that is by showing it."

Dr. Lucille Gunning, a pediatrician who cared for several of Mr. Dobosu's children, said in the film that she was suspicious of his motives at first. Each time he adopted another child, she said, she told him it should be the last. But the boys and girls seemed to gain self-confidence after they arrived at the Dobosu household, "so I no longer question him," she said.

After the film, "Children of Pride," was broadcast, Mr. Dobosu became something of a celebrity in the adoption field. The National Father's Day Committee named him a "father of the year" in 1983. Also honored that year were President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, and the actor Joe Piscopo.

In 1984, Mr. Dobosu was recruited to administer the state of Ohio's special adoptions program. He held that job until 1988, when he resigned. Carole Hector-Harris, then a spokeswoman for the Ohio Human Services Department, said he left because he was frustrated with the bureaucracy.

About a year ago, Mr. Dobosu and his family returned to Harlem and the house on Striver's Row.

Adoption Subsidies

Mr. Dobosu, sometimes tearful, sometimes angry, is now trying to grapple with the harsh appraisals of his motives and his ability as a single father to care for so many children.

To those who say he did it for money, he answers that he is "between a rock and a hard place financially." Publicity about the charges against him has dried up the fees he used to earn from speeches and consulting work in the adoption field, he said.

He declined to say how much he received in government adoption subsidies, which are provided for hard-to-place children, except to say that the amount does not cover his costs.

In New York City, adoption subsidies range from $400 to $1,200 a month per child, depending on the severity of the child's problems, but the amounts paid by other cities and states vary widely, said Peter Winkler, director of the New York State Adoption Service, a division of the State Social Services Department.

To critics like Marcia Lowry, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union's children's rights project, who says states desperate to place unwanted youngsters gave him too many children, Mr. Dobosu counters that he has given his children what they needed most -- a family.

"I took the ones the agencies had destroyed and called garbage," he said. "I was a hell of a lot better than an institution. I still believe that."

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