Neighbors recall child abuse suspect
By Lise Fisher
GAINESVILLE - Two neighbors of a Gainesville woman, accused of adopting numerous children over the past 20 years and then abusing them, found the charges against her difficult to accept Friday.
Nellie Johnson, 60, and her adopted daughter Colony Johnson, 29, were being held at the Alachua County jail late Friday in a case police have described as an ongoing history of abuse involving at least 17 children over a period of at least six years. Police allege the children were instructed to recite rehearsed stories to officials from the Florida Department of Children and Families, law enforcement and the South Florida agency the children were adopted through or "suffer the consequences."
Thirty-eight charges, including aggravated child abuse, child neglect and tampering with a witness, victim or informant, have been filed against Nellie Johnson and several counts of child abuse are pending against Colony Johnson.
Bob Brooks, director of communications in Tallahassee for the Florida Department of Children and Families, released a statement Friday saying, "We've determined that there are a number of children in DCF's care who were foster and adoptive children of Nellie Johnson in the Gainesville area. Those children are no longer in the home. They are all receiving care and are out of that environment and have been since 2001."
"Our internal investigations are raising some serious questions about how the process has worked in this case. However, we don't yet have all the facts and, until we do, further comment would only be speculation."
Two Gainesville residents who live near Nellie Johnson's home at 2136 N.E. 3rd Place said they had not been inside the single-story, fenced house. But, in spite of reports from police about children being beaten with pipes and forced to eat until they vomited, they did not believe that she abused anyone, echoing comments made by one of Nellie Johnson's adoptive children after she was jailed.
"I don't believe she did anything to those kids," said Lucinda Hale. The woman, who has lived in the area for about 30 years, said Nellie Johnson moved into the neighborhood several years ago.
Nellie Johnson, police have said, came to Gainesville from Mt. Dora in 1996. She attends Compassionate Outreach Ministries in Gainesville, a relative said. She also works at North Florida Regional Medical Center, where a records check lists her as a custodial employee.
Hale said she wondered why Nellie Johnson had so many children.
"I wondered why she was keeping that many. I would never keep that many. I couldn't have handled it," she said, especially considering that investigators have said the children came from troubled backgrounds.
Still, Hale said, "She seemed like a very nice neighbor. I don't wish the worst for nobody when they try to help other people's kids. To me, now, I just really don't believe that she did that to all those kids."
Another neighbor said, "I have never, ever seen anything going on over there. As far as I know, she's such a nice lady. As far as I know, all those kids seemed so happy."
Parents of children adopted from state custody are eligible for an adoption subsidy of about $350 to $400 per child a month.
Police have said the children have not been at Nellie Johnson's home since 2001, when her parental rights were terminated following an Alachua County court hearing.
Adoption laws and policies generally do not place a numerical limit on the number of children a person can adopt, said Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a University of Florida law professor and director of the Center on Children and the Law.
"A cap on the number of the children doesn't make as much sense as whether the family and the number of the children they have currently are doing well," she said. "There are safeguards, but the safeguards are in the form of courts and social workers who should be looking at not only if the adoptive parent has the appropriate character and skills but also if they are taking on more than they can appropriately handle," she said.
Woodhouse and Cynthia Swanson, a longtime Gainesville attorney who has practiced family law, also said that once a child is adopted there is no further supervision by the state.
"New legal parental rights are created, as if they are born to the parent," Swanson said. "Nobody is in there supervising."