The children’s home was a must-stop destination for the powerful.
In the 1960s, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Vice President Hubert Humphrey were just a few of the important figures to pay visits to Junior Village, Washington’s renowned refuge for impoverished children. Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon sponsored Christmas and Thanksgiving parties at the White House for handpicked Junior Village children, according to The Washington Post.
But the cheerful newspaper photos of those visits and holiday celebrations didn’t capture what happened when the cameras were gone: harrowing abuse.
After opening in 1958, Junior Village became the largest institution of its kind in the nation by 1965. It jammed 900 needy children, ages 6 months to 18 years, including the mentally ill and disabled, in a facility meant for 320, according to an article published in Harper’s magazine that year.
Jonathan Adams has never forgotten his first night there, in the spring of 1962, when he was 8.
“I had to fight for the first time,” said Adams, who now lives in San Diego. “I punched a kid, the one who initiated all the new kids.”
Nick Robinson arrived in 1965 when he was 9 and saw a crowd of boys gathered around the dorm’s bathroom. When he pushed his way through, he witnessed an older boy forcing a younger boy to perform oral sex.
“It was horrifying,” said Robinson, now an English professor at Claflin University. “I started sleeping with a pair of scissors under my pillow and did everything within my power to avoid instances of sexual abuse.”
Kids who were considered disobedient were administered massive doses of Thorazine, a heavy sedative, to prevent them from acting out, investigations eventually revealed. Robinson said that some of the worst counselors would drug children and then sexually assault them.
Located in a desolate corner of Southwest Washington, Junior Village was a compound of 13 cottages surrounded by the city’s refuse: a dump, a sewage treatment plant and a lot full of broken-down police cars, the Harper’s article said.
Poverty, neglect and unemployment in the nation’s capital created a steady flow of children into the home. But it was a 1961 crackdown on welfare fraud, led by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the District of Columbia, that helped fuel massive overcrowding.
He launched an investigation into welfare recipients who didn’t abide by the “man in the house” rule, which banned public assistance to women and children if an able-bodied man lived with the family or was in regular contact. Under Byrd’s oversight, 4,000 District women and children were dropped from the welfare rolls between 1962 and 1965.
The consequences were quickly visible at Junior Village. From 1962 through 1965, the number of children taken from their homes soared by 90 percent. The vast majority were African Americans, and some wound up at Junior Village.
Junior Village was supposed to be a temporary placement by the Department of Public Welfare. But the average stay at the home surged to 10 months, and many children remained for years.
With overcrowding on the rise, the local media began to take notice.
In early 1964, WMAL-TV had a documentary film crew spend a week at the Junior Village compound. The ensuing half-hour program is told through the point of view of the director of the home, Joseph Kosiski, who asks viewers for more volunteers. The film opens with children eating hearty dinners in the home’s cafeteria.
“That documentary was a joke; it had to have been staged,” remembered Steven Penrod. “If you weren’t one of the first 100 in line, the food ran out and all you had left to eat was dinner rolls.”
Penrod was 8 when he entered Junior Village in 1964 and was there for four years. “I weighed only 90 pounds when I left the home to live in an orphanage in Pennsylvania,” said Penrod, now 63 and living in Michigan. Until then, “I had never had cheese, turkey or ham. When I got to the Pennsylvania orphanage, I had to ask what boiled eggs were since I’d never seen them before.”
Penrod, who says he was subjected to regular beatings at Junior Village, said the Department of Public Welfare sent him there because his mother was an unemployed alcoholic who couldn’t care for him. “But I would have preferred to stay with her after what I went through,” he said.
By contrast, Emmett Williams, now an artist living in Florida, said he didn’t mind his two-year stay that began in 1967, when he was 6. Kosiski took an interest in Williams because of his artistic talent, and for a few weeks brought Williams to his house during the day to visit with his wife.
Williams was also chosen to attend a White House Christmas party for Junior Village children in 1969. There, he met President Richard M. Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, who asked to keep a picture he drew of her shoes.
“It was a wonderful experience at the White House. We got to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on a big screen,” Williams, 57, said.
After WMAL’s documentary aired, the federal government began putting up Army tents on the grounds of Junior Village to deal with the overcrowding.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Gordon Cosby from the District’s Church of the Savior, inspired by his participation in MLK’s civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., returned to Washington determined to help the city’s poor. He started a campaign with a seemingly impossible goal: to close down Junior Village.
Cosby brought together pastors and congregants from around the city to form a nonprofit organization called For Love of Children (FLOC), which now provides education services for low-income children in the nation’s capital.
Throughout 1965, members of FLOC began finding families to serve as foster parents. The group also began buying and renting buildings in the city to be used for foster and group homes. Between 1965 and 1968, FLOC’s work helped to reduce the population at Junior Village from over 900 to around 600, the Rev. Fred Taylor, who became executive director of the organization in 1968, said in an interview. But more needed to be done to improve the day-to-day lives of the children who remained.
“There was nothing to do there,” Penrod said. “No gym, no library. It was just you, alone.” The teenagers were aimless and abusive to the younger children, he said.
Robinson, who lived in Junior Village for six years starting in 1965, said reading is what saved him. “Some of the counselors were caring, and the volunteers tried to take care of the children,” he said. But it didn’t make up for the understaffed, overcrowded environment.
One of those caring counselors was Martin Fields. In 1967, Fields began documenting abuses that children had confided to him. Within three years, he had compiled 280 pages of memos that he sent to his superiors to push for reform.
Taylor was a frequent visitor to Junior Village as part of his work with FLOC. On one of those visits in late 1970, Fields told Taylor about his incriminating memos.
Taylor was shocked when he saw the testimonies, which included incidents of rape and children being drugged. He put Fields in touch with The Washington Post’s editorial director, J.W. Anderson, who had written the Harper’s magazine article about the home in 1965.
Anderson had been looking for more documentation of abuses at Junior Village, Taylor said. The editor then sent reporter Aaron Latham to the home to delve deeper into Fields’s complaints.
The resulting exposé, a four-part series published in January 1971, was a bombshell that stunned the Washington area.
In the opening article, Latham described a gang rape that occurred in October 1970 that involved a boy who lured a girl to a bathroom where 28 other boys attacked her. The police showed up afterward, and the girl identified several of her assailants. “But no charges were pressed and nothing was heard of the incident outside Junior Village,” Latham wrote.
Boys raped other boys. In one article, Fields described one child who told him, “I was all boy when I came to Junior Village in 1965; but do not know what I am now . . . Boy . . . Girl . . . or what? Sometimes at night they won’t let me sleep . . . they seem to come in shifts.”
The image of Junior Village as a goodwill stop for politicians was shattered. The series prompted investigations by Congress and the City Council, with the council promising to shutter Junior Village within two years.
In 1973, the home closed its doors for good, with all the children sent to nearby foster and group homes. But memories of the trauma linger.
Robinson has written a memoir, “Our Family Walks,” that covers the six years he lived at Junior Village until he ran away from the home at 15.
“The splinters of childhood never go away,” Robinson said. “I could not let this place dissolve in the dust of time. These are things we all have to live with for the rest of our lives.”
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