By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
When I met C. Kenneth Johnson in 1991, he had already adopted five children and was in the process of adopting 22-month-old twins. A spry 62 at the time, he was a case worker for the D.C. Office of Paternity and Child Support known for taking his work home, literally, embraced in his loving arms.
I recently visited the father extraordinaire, now a spry 80 and retired, at his home in Southeast Washington. How had he fared through the years? Just fine, thank you.
Even as evidence of cruelty toward adopted children abounds -- seven D.C. kids killed in the past eight months, their adoptive parents charged or suspected in the homicides -- Johnson stands as towering proof of a love supreme.
He has adopted eight children since 1983. Three daughters and two grandchildren still live with him. He has taken in another 144 foster children, most for a few days but some for as long as three years.
And he has done it all as a single man, too busy to look for a mate, he says, figuring that the chances of finding someone willing to help raise so many troubled children would be slim to none.
"When I look back, I can see that it was a lot of work," Johnson told me. "But I didn't think about it that way. I just did it."
While in his care, none of the children was neglected or abused. They did not run away from home, skip school, commit crimes or otherwise disappear through the cracks of a dysfunctional child welfare system.
Nothing bad to report. You might even say that when it comes to adoptions and foster care, no news is good news -- except that if you want to know what it really takes to help children in need, you need to know about people like Johnson.
"He's just an amazing man with an incredible commitment to helping our youth," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former social worker at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. "Mr. Johnson was a foster parent for one of the youths on my caseload, and he was fearless about coming to the agency and going straight to a social worker's desk. He'd say, 'My child needs so-and-so.' And whether he wanted you to sign a document or just buy a box of his daughter's Girl Scout cookies, he never let the government bureaucracy get in the way of providing good care for his children."
As if being an adoptive and foster parent weren't enough, Johnson also founded the Ward 8 Tennis Council in 1985. Each summer, his organization helps more than 300 District children get tennis lessons. About 18 have attended college on full tennis scholarships. On Feb. 28, a fundraiser will be held at Johnson's church, Shiloh Baptist in Northwest Washington. (For more information, call Johnson at 202-561-1520 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Oddly enough, such noble efforts to help at-risk children began with a most ignoble act committed by one of them: In March 1981, Johnson answered the doorbell at his home on Mississippi Avenue SE, and a teenage would-be robber pulled a gun and shot him in the mouth.
Miraculously, Johnson survived. Given a second chance at life, he decided to make the most of it. That he succeeded could not be more apparent.
Adopted twins Nicole and Nicola are now 19. After graduating from high school, they went to work for a day-care center and plan to attend college next year: They will study child development. (Johnson, a native of New Haven, Conn., ran a state child-development agency in Pennsylvania and a Head Start program in the District before going to work for CFSA.) "That's my influence," he said proudly of his daughters' interest in child care.
Donna, 22, adopted at 4, is a junior at the University of the District of Columbia; Danny, 25, adopted at 5, is an assistant fast-food store manager in the District; Harisha, 23, adopted at 8, is a recreation specialist for the D.C. government; Rodney, 30, adopted at 9, has top-level security clearance at the Pentagon; his twin sister, Rakina, is self-employed as a marketing consultant; Quinn, 39, adopted at 17, works for Lutheran Social Services.
Not long ago, Johnson's daughters asked whether he could take in two girls -- one homeless with children, the other put out of the house by her parents. Johnson welcomed them with open arms.
By the way, that bullet remains lodged beneath his tongue -- too close to a major nerve for surgery. "It's like a daily reminder not to talk so much about a problem," he said. "Just do something about it."