Two charged with abusing adopted kids

Date: 2003-04-11

BY LISE FISHER

Two Gainesville women, including one who has been adopting abused and neglected children for about 20 years, are accused of abusing many of those children - beating them with pipes and forcing them to fight with each other at their home, police said.

Nellie Jasper Johnson, 60, was at the Alachua County jail Thursday where she was being held in lieu of a $1 million bond on 38 charges including aggravated child abuse, child neglect and tampering with a witness, victim or informant.

Also charged is her adopted daughter, Colony Latrisa Johnson, 29, who was at the jail in lieu of a $500,000 bond. She faces prosecution on six counts of child abuse and four counts of aggravated child abuse.

Both are listed in court records as residents of 2136 NE 3rd Place.

One of Nellie Johnson's adopted sons, Starling Johnson, 27, rebutted the allegations.

"I just don't think all this is true. There never has been any abuse in this household," he said.

Starling Johnson, who returned last year to the house but has lived on and off with Nellie Johnson, said, "My mother took in children who were troubled kids. She tried to help someone, and she ended up being hurt like this."

Police forwarded the names of 19 possible victims to prosecutors, Gainesville Police Detective Patti Nixon said. They were ages 7 to 17 when the alleged abuse occurred, she said.

Nixon said this is one of the worst cases of child abuse she has seen.

"It's a horrible situation for these children," Nixon said. "They come from bad homes. They were taken from a horrible situation and put into another really tragic situation."

The two women, court records report, are accused of punishing children by using pipes, a board, a broom and a shoe to hit them. In one case, a child's thigh was burnt and another child's head was slammed into a wall, court records said.

Children also were forced to fight with each other, perform jumping jacks for an extended length of time, stay under the bed and were force-fed until they vomited, police say.

"When the victim dared to ask for another piece of bread on another occasion, the defendant forced the victim to eat two loaves of bread," a sworn complaint filed against Nellie Johnson said. In some cases, records report, the children bled after being beaten. Other children who would not assist in the beatings also were beaten, it's alleged. Girls at the home were given birth control shots because Nellie Johnson believed they were promiscuous, records also state.

All of the victims were adopted through a Broward County agency called Shepherd's Care Ministries, police and an official with the Florida Department of Children & Families said. The group is licensed by DCF to recruit adults to adopt children and to make adoptive placements, local DCF spokesman Tom Barnes said.

The group, Barnes said, would have been responsible for conducting a home study prior to the children being adopted by Nellie Johnson.
The home study would have included interviews with the adoptive parents, children already placed with them, neighbors, school officials and the family's church. In cases where the children were living in state-funded foster care prior to adoption, state officials then would have been responsible for reviewing that study and then agreeing or disagreeing with the placement. A judge makes the final decision.

Barnes said Nellie Johnson was "very well-respected in the community as somebody taking care of children. There was a lot of outrage about the investigation."

"In hindsight, obviously they must have been mistaken," Barnes said.

When questioned, Barnes said parents of children adopted from state custody are eligible for about $350 to $400 per child a month in "adoption subsidy."

A representative of Shepherd's Care Ministries could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Police learned about the case after a 2001 complaint made to DCF. A child living with Nellie and Colony Johnson came forward at school about the alleged abuse, Nixon said.

Barnes said that 2001 was not the first time DCF had contact with Nellie Johnson. He said he could not elaborate on previous contacts but that they did not result in a criminal investigation or protective intervention.

The last adoption occurred in about 1996, Barnes said. The adopted children came from South Florida, including Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Nixon said there may have been more victims.

"There are more children out there who are grown and we haven't been able to reach," she said.

Because Nellie Johnson moved to Gainesville from Mount Dora in 1996, local investigators were able to review the case only from that time forward, Nixon said.

Records at the Mount Dora Police Department show that Nellie Johnson was a suspect in two child abuse cases there, one in 1993 and another in 1994. Additional details about those cases were not available Thursday. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows she has no prior criminal history or convictions.

Spencer Mann with the State Attorney's Office confirmed that Nellie Johnson's parental rights were terminated following a court hearing in Alachua County in September 2001. Police said children have not been at the home since 2001.

Nellie Johnson turned herself in at the jail Thursday morning, Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Keith Faulk said. Colony Johnson was arrested after she went to the jail to check on her mother. She was "creating a disturbance" in the jail lobby when employees learned she was wanted on a warrant in the case, Faulk said.

Faulk also said that Colony Johnson was a former employee at the jail, where she worked as a detention assistant. She resigned in May 2001 after working there since 1998. She is now listed as a security worker at Georgia Pacific, court records show.

Maximum sentences for the various charges filed against both women include 30 years for aggravated child abuse, 15 years for child neglect and five years for child abuse or tampering with a witness or victim.

Starling Johnson said his mother's family is hoping that a hearing will be scheduled soon where a bond reduction can be requested for the women.

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