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Sex-Abuse Case in Harlem Leaves Neighbors Confused


Sex-Abuse Case in Harlem Leaves Neighbors Confused

May 23, 1991


On Striver's Row, the shady, elegant block of Harlem row houses where Kodzo Dobosu lived with his 18 adopted children, neighbors praised him yesterday for single-handedly raising dozens of unwanted children over the years.

But as the 51-year-old father faced charges of sexually abusing his 14-year-old adopted daughter, the neighbors also began to wonder whether something had gone terribly wrong behind the clay-colored facade of his restored four-story home.

The man at the heart of the enigma was once honored as a father of the year by the National Father's Day Committee and profiled as a hero on two national television news programs -- West 57th on CBS and Frontline on PBS -- for adopting more than 30 children who were, among other things, retarded, blind, deaf, emotionally disturbed or in wheelchairs. 2 Views Among Neighbors

To some neighbors, Mr. Dobosu is a personable, caring role model. To others he is a peculiar fellow, notable for his flamboyant attire -- balloon pants, bangles on his wrists and ankles, rings on his fingers and earrings.

Many questioned the wisdom of allowing a single man to have so many children. Of the 18 living with him at 257 West 139th Street, eight were girls 8 to 17 years old.

"How could a single man be taking care of so many kids?" asked Trina Warner, a model who lives across the street. "There should be a woman to look after the girls."

Jean Spruill, a singer who lived on the next block of 139th Street in the early 1980's and donated clothing for his children, said: "We all looked up to him because of what he was doing; he saved these children from the streets. I blame the system. He should never have been given more than three or four kids." Wide Range of Adoptions

Only two of Mr. Dobosu's children were from the New York City foster-care system, said Sheila Jack, a spokeswoman for the Human Resources Administration. She said she did not know when he adopted them. The rest apparently were adopted from other states.

"I don't think the New York agencies would give him any more children, but he did manage to get children from other states," said Penny Ferrer, director of adoption services at the H.R.A. "At some point there was clearly the assumption he was taking good care of the children."

Ms. Ferrer said the city did not limit the number of children a single person could adopt, as long as a home study by a certified adoption agency found that the prospective parent could provide for the child. There is no rule against a single man adopt ing girls. Mr. Dobosu was arrested Tuesday after his 14-year-old adopted daughter, a special-education student, told her guidance counselor at Public School 30 that he had sexually abused her.

She had gone forward earlier that day after a presentation by the Child Abuse Prevention Program, a private nonprofit agency that gives educational workshops in public schools, said Marion White, the agency's executive director. Mr. Dobosu was then questioned at the 32d Precinct police station and arrested there.

Yesterday Mr. Dobosu was charged with first-degree sexual abuse, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. The complaint charged that on May 20, while threatening to harm his daughter, he had fondled her breasts and inserted his finger into her vagina. Prosecutor Interviews Children

The District Attorney's office was interviewing his other children yesterday to learn whether any had allegations of abuse to level at their adoptive father.

The children are now at home and being supervised by adopted siblings who are more than 18 years old and by Mr. Dobusu's sister, Ms. Jack said. Yesterday a young man who answered the phone at Mr. Dobosu's home said, "I'm sorry we can't talk at this moment until our lawyer advises us to do so."

Mr. Dobosu, who also used the name Kojo Odo, began adopting children in the early 1970's, The Associated Press reported in a 1983 profile about him.

In 1984 he moved to Ohio and spent several years there as an administrator for special adoptions in the State Department of Human Services. City Subsidizes Care of 2

Since returning to New York, he has survived in part with adoption subsidies he receives for his "special needs" children. New York City, for example, sends him $975 a month for the two city children he adopted, officials said.

His unconventional style and unusual calling have attracted laudatory newspaper articles and television broadcasts over the last decade. In its 1983 article, The A.P. wrote that Mr. Dobosu's children were "nurtured in his love, safe in the knowledge that their days of institutions and foster homes are over."

Jane Wallace told Time magazine that her account of him when she was a correspondent for West 57th had inspired her to adopt a child.

"I thought, 'Wow, if this guy can do this, what am I worried about?"' Ms. Wallace said.

On Mr. Dobosu's block, neighbors reacted with dismay and disbelief to news of his arrest. In the 1920s, Striver's Row won its name as a place where prominent blacks worked their way to success. To many of its current residents, Mr. Dobosu was helping some of society's most vulnerable children get their chance.

Edward Sherman, a photographer who has lived on the block for 18 years, said he would not believe the allegations against Mr. Dobosu until they were proved. 'A Very Positive Black Man'

"He's a very positive black man who was trying to provide troubled children a home," Mr. Sherman said. "He gravitates to children other folks would shy away from. Most folks wouldn't want someone crippled, or older black and Hispanic kids."

Some neighbors recalled particular kindnesses. Gloria Flores, owner of the corner bakery, said Mr. Dobosu pushed a little boy in a wheelchair to watch the Afro-American parade.

Ms. Spruill remembered a one-armed teen-age boy who became a basketball player while living with Mr. Dobosu, then was stabbed to death.

James Young said the Dobosu children would buy bags bags of roasted peanuts at his peanut stand. "They were just ordinary kids," he said. "They'd be out here playing."

Still, Mr. Young said, he wondered about the way Mr. Dobosu dressed. So did Ada Joseph, 75, a retired civil-service worker.

"He was peculiar," she said. "He didn't look like a person to take care of kids. But I thought, 'Maybe he takes care of them O.K.' I can't say anything against the kids."

1991 May 23