Nicole Johnson poses for a portrait in this undated family photo. (Family Photo/ )
On a July evening last year, Nicole Johnson piled her four children into her Chevrolet Suburban and tried to drive them into the Anacostia River.
On Friday, after months of mental-health evaluations and a decision that she is fit to stand trial, Johnson, 33, appeared in D.C. Superior Court. She plans to plead guilty to assault with intent to kill, one of her public defenders told Judge William Jackson.
Unresolved in court Friday, however, was whether city officials did enough to protect Johnson’s four children. Johnson’s mother, Ophelia Johnson, said her daughter has struggled with mental illness since she was a teenager. Just five months before the July incident, Nicole Johnson had reached out to District police and the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency seeking help for herself and her children, her mother said.
“She was overwhelmed,” Ophelia Johnson, 58, said. “No one would help her.”
Johnson’s story is reminiscent of the case of Banita Jacks, who was arrested in 2008 and charged with killing her four daughters, ages 5, 6, 11 and 16, and living with their corpses in her Southeast rowhouse for nearly six months. Jacks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Six workers with the Child and Family Services Agency were fired after an investigation concluded that they failed to follow up with the Jacks family prior to the killings.
Agency staff became familiar with Nicole Johnson in 2008, the same year as the Jacks case, according to Johnson’s mother and a city official familiar with the case. Ophelia Johnson said caseworkers were contacted when her daughter, in front of witnesses at their school, threatened to drown the children.
The children were placed in a foster home, and Johnson agreed to take medication and meet with doctors, the city official said. Two years later, in 2010, the case was closed and Johnson’s children returned to her.
The facts of July 18 are not in dispute.
Johnson, 33, drove to Anacostia Park in Southeast Washington, according to documents filed with D.C. Superior Court. She parked at the water’s edge and told her children — ages 16, 14, 11 and 8 — that “no one wanted them” and “they should all drown together.” She ordered one of them to call her father to say goodbye.
But the 16-year-old jumped out and urged his siblings to do the same. Johnson hit the accelerator and tried to run over the children as they sought shelter behind trees. A witness alerted a nearby U.S. Park Police officer, and Johnson was arrested and admitted to St. Elizabeths, the District’s psychiatric hospital.
At Friday’s court hearing, Johnson, wearing a blue jacket and slacks, stood next to one of her public defenders. Johnson’s mother sat a few feet behind, scribbling notes on a pad.
Later, outside the courtroom, Ophelia Johnson talked about her daughter’s struggles.
By 2012, Nicole Johnson was working full time as a computer analyst and taking classes at night, and she was overwhelmed, her mother said. In late February 2012, Johnson took the children to the Child and Family Services Agency’s Southwest Washington office and told officials she was struggling and needed help, her mother said. After waiting for an hour, Johnson got back into her truck with the kids and drove to the Seventh District police headquarters, again seeking help, Ophelia Johnson said.
Officials with Child and Family Services declined to comment in detail on the case. D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump, asked to comment on Ophelia Johnson’s assertion that her daughter reached out to police for help, said: “We’re looking into this matter to see if it actually occurred.”
About a week later, in early March 2012, a social worker from Child and Family Services met with Johnson and her children in their home, her mother recalled. The caseworker, according to Ophelia Johnson, noted that the home was clean and well stocked with food. The caseworker gave Nicole Johnson some information about finding help with rent and utilities.
The caseworker did not, according to Ophelia Johnson, take note of her daughter’s past diagnosis of multiple-personality disorder or a mental breakdown in 2011 that led to a brief hospitalization. Ophelia Johnson has filed a complaint with the agency.
Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for Child and Family Services, said, “This case is much more about a mental-health issue then a child-welfare issue, and it’s very sad.” She did not offer more details.
Johnson is scheduled to appear again in court on March 29. If the judge accepts her plea, she faces a maximum of three years in prison and five years of supervised released and will be allowed no contact with minors, according to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.
The children have been split between two foster homes. Their grandmother says she is unable to care for them financially. The children have different fathers; two of them have filed for custody.