Children’s advocate at state attorney’s office, Denise Kelly Johnson dies at 61

1 Fort Lauderdale

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Denise Kelly Johnson, an attorney and chief of the child support enforcement division of the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, spent 23 years helping thousands of parents trying to get child support from a deadbeat spouse.

“She was uniquely devoted, passionate and committed to women and children and to the responsibility that we all have to give our children the wherewithal to survive in this very complex world,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “And truly, with all of that devotion, compassion and commitment came her leadership skills — and they were contagious.”

Johnson died March 10 at 61, two weeks after suffering a stroke on the day she, the state attorney and her colleagues were renewing their oaths of office.

“She was absolutely dedicated to her job. We went to visit her in the hospital and she was already talking about getting back to work,” said family friend, Miami Shores attorney Stephen Loffredo.

Rundle marveled at Johnson’s ability to navigate the rapid changes in law and technology while managing a caseload that in one year hit 120,000 cases. She supervised about 26 attorneys and a support staff of nearly 400. Cases are maintained until the children reach maturity.

Intelligence is about being able to transform yourself or the system and she was able to do that. … Denise was one of the most respected prosecutors our Child Support Division has ever known.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney.

“That’s a huge responsibility,” Rundle said. “Last year alone our child support enforcement division collected $166 million. When they told me that I thought it was a typo.”

Before joining the state attorney’s office in 1994, the Chicago-born Johnson was a child welfare social worker for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and an assistant state attorney there before moving to Miami in 1988 with her husband, Stanley Johnson.

“She did everything decently and in order and she was caring and a very perceptive person,” he said.

Her husband shares a story of how they met. In the spring of 1982, Denise visited Indiana University School of Law where Stanley had finished his first year. “She found me in the hallway studying and asked me to give her a tour. I didn’t think anything of it. But then in the first week or two of enrollment she told one of her fellow classmates she could marry me. She didn’t tell me that, of course. I always said I know I have a great wife. I always said I was the luckiest person. And she said, ‘God put us together.’”

The couple would have celebrated their 29th anniversary in May.

She was a very humble, caring, giving person. She reminded me so much of her mother. She was the daughter my mother never had.

Stanley Johnson on wife, Denise.

Older sister Gwendolyn Kelly believes Johnson’s compassion originated at her first job with the state attorney’s office in Cook County, Illinois, where she worked with underserved children. “She saw how important it was to have the legal component to be able to serve children. Her life as a child advocate … shined through her work here in South Florida.” Kelly adds another theory: “Denise was the youngest. I think there’s something about doting on the youngest child that gives them that compassionate gene. At least that’s what happened in our family.”

Johnson is also survived by her sister Dianne Simmons. A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. March 25 at Church of the Incarnation, 1835 NW 54th St., Miami.

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