Dewayne Johnson might not have the worldwide fan following of the similarly named pro wrestler-turned-movie star. But, in his way, he has become a true rock for kids in need.
Johnson, 48, is a social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), home to the largest local population of foster kids in the nation. He’s also a bit of a unicorn.
Born into foster care himself, Johnson spent his childhood moving from house to house, relative to relative. One day, the situation became so dire that the then 15-year-old made the incredible decision of asking the much-maligned foster care system to take him back in.
Eventually becoming a foster parent himself, and ultimately a department social worker, Johnson has seen the child welfare world from all angles, affording him unusual insight into his work.
Empathy and compassion are words coworkers and family use often when describing Johnson’s character. Though he appears serious and stoic at first, when his eyes crinkle into a smile, you can start to see what they’re talking about.
“Inside, he is really soft and sweet and with open arms,” says fellow DCFS social worker Florence Inay. “He’s like a father bear.”
Now in his fourth year with the department, after years of searching for his path, Johnson looks around at the clusters of cubicles in the far-flung Palmdale field office where he’s stationed and nods, saying, “I belong.”
From Bad to Worse
Johnson’s mother, Alberta, gave birth to him when she was 14 and living in a group home herself. Her mother was schizophrenic and unable to care for her and her father sent her away when he discovered she was pregnant, Johnson says. Johnson’s father, a Nigerian exchange student, was not in the picture, so foster care was the only option.
Johnson’s first memories are from the home of his first foster home — waiting at the front door for his genial foster dad to return from work, being hit with an extension cord by his foster mom.
When she turned 18, Alberta was finally able to get her 4-year-old back from foster care. Johnson moved in with her and his brand new baby half-brother just before Christmas of that year — but it didn’t last long.
“She was a child. She didn’t know what she was doing,” Johnson says. She quickly became more interested in partying than parenting, so her two sons bounced from relative to relative.
At 11, Johnson and his brother moved back in with their mom. She’d had another baby, gotten remarried, and wanted her family together again.
This was the early 80s, though, and the crack-cocaine epidemic hit Los Angeles hard. His mother started using, and his stepfather fell into alcoholism.
“It got to the point I was 12 years old and I was feeding all of us,” Johnson says, explaining how he hustled for tips by helping shoppers with their groceries.
His mom and stepfather became so negligent that Johnson moved his sister’s crib into his own room and started caring for the newborn himself — middle-of-the-night diaper changes and all.
Like her mother before her, Alberta Johnson started showing signs of mental illness and was hospitalized off and on. Again, Johnson started cycling through relatives’ homes. He was separated from siblings, who were sent to live with their fathers’ families. He slept on floors and struggled to find enough food to eat. He stopped going to school.
Three years of this, and Johnson had run out of options. That’s how he found himself walking through the door of a county administration building and asking DCFS to step in.
“My name’s Dewayne Johnson, I’m 15 years old, and I have nowhere to live,” he told them.
Searching for Stability
Johnson wasn’t scared to turn his life over to DCFS, he says, but he quickly found himself feeling forgotten and ostracized in his first two foster homes. Those placements didn’t last long, and Johnson’s uncertainty about the system grew.
By the time he made it to his third and final foster placement, he’d essentially lost all faith in the adults who were meant to support him.
Having learned how to fare on his own, he planned to continue that way. So, he was happy to find that his new foster mom, Catherine Hayden, was relatively absent, working around the clock as a medical caregiver to make ends meet.
Hayden has been a foster mom now for nearly 30 years — she can’t even remember how many kids have come through her doors — but Johnson was her first. After a few months, Hayden cut back on her work as a caregiver to focus on fostering. She and Johnson grew close.
“Some people you meet, there’s something about them that your spirits just bond together,” Hayden says. Even as a teenage boy, he was kind and dependable and his intelligence shone, she recalls.
Johnson’s birth mother, who died several years ago, lived just two blocks away from Hayden’s house at the time. Hayden says she’d visit from time to time, but wasn’t interested in reunifying with her son.
Johnson stayed with Hayden until he emancipated at 18, but the two have remained close to this day. As he worked to pursue various careers, from firefighter to pharmacist, Hayden was always there. He even came back to live with her during brief times of transition.
“He never left me,” Hayden says. “I still talk to him about every day.”
As Johnson struggled to find his path as a young adult, Hayden suggested he, too, might be a great fit as a foster parent.
Thinking back on the childhood years he spent caring for his younger siblings and supporting his family, Johnson knew she was right.
“I’d been doing it my whole life,” he says.
Johnson saved up until he could afford a South L.A. apartment big enough for a family, and started fostering — as a single parent — at 28.
He estimates that he cared for about 30 kids — all boys — during the 14 years he spent being a foster dad. Early on, he displayed a special aptitude for working with teenage boys, generally considered one of the toughest groups to find lasting foster placements for.
“I love teenagers,” he says. “I really feel like they’re my specialty because I remember how I felt as a teenager.”
Johnson and Hayden often brought their kids together for family meals and celebrations. Hayden says Johnson’s boys called her grandma.
A key factor to Johnson’s success as a foster parent was finding the right therapist for the kids. Laura Goddard, then with The Help Group in Culver City, was so effective that Johnson brought all of his boys to her — even after moving more than 60 miles away from her office.
Goddard asked Johnson if he’d ever considered becoming a child welfare social worker. Hayden had recently been asking the same, as had Inay with DCFS, who met Johnson a few years before when they worked together training prospective foster parents.
At 38, he decided he would try to join the department that he’d turned to in desperation more than 20 years before.
“I feel like my entire life was leading me to this direction,” Johnson says.
Coming Full Circle
In 2012, Johnson graduated from California State University, Bakersfield with a master’s degree in social work. When a position opened up at DCFS, he applied that day. By January 2014, he was on the county payroll as a case-carrying social worker.
Inay, a longtime social worker with DCFS, was thrilled that Johnson decided to join the department.
“Every time I trained with him he had the same effect with families. It was so natural,” Inay says. “The whole classroom was drawn to him because he was so open and honest and genuine. They started looking up to him because he went through the process.”
While Johnson praises his colleagues’ skills with the families they serve, it is his ability to relate firsthand to both the foster parents and the kids in care that makes him such an uncommon asset to the department. He shares his story frankly and without shame, and, in his success, he tries to give the vulnerable kids and families in the system hope.
Every once in a while, a story he hears from a kid will drudge up difficult memories, but he knows that the pain that comes up in these moments is precisely what makes him so good for the job.
“Kids know when you know, when you can connect,” he says. “A lot of my foster kids and I connected because I had the experience of having that mother who didn’t put you first.”
Johnson’s path — from foster youth, to foster parent and then caseworker — is pretty rare. But some child welfare veterans foresee a sharp increase in former foster youth in positions of leadership.
“I predict that we are about to see a generational shift, a wave of alumni influence in various leadership capacities in the foster care system,” said Hank Marotske, a former foster youth, in an op-ed for the magazine Foster Focus. Marotske is the director of development for PATH Inc., a multi-state provider of treatment foster care.
When he set out to join DCFS, Johnson had to give up his role as a foster parent to prevent conflict of interest, but his former foster kids continue to rely on him. Many have come back to live with him at various times as adults — one has been living at Johnson’s house for the past six years, and his girlfriend lives there, too — and Johnson couldn’t be more thrilled about his new set up.
“I had a house full for 14 years,” he says. “That empty nest syndrome is real!”
Johnson’s baby sister also lives with him, along with her son. When Johnson was a teen, she’d been sent to live with her father’s family in Boston. The two lost contact for nearly 30 years, but were reunited after Johnson hired a private detective to track her down.
Johnson’s younger brother had gone to live with his father, too, instead of entering foster care. “He got caught up in gang-banging,” Johnson says.
His brother was killed by L.A. Police Department officers in 2011. He had been unarmed, but on drugs, when police fatally used a Taser against him, Johnson said.
Hayden, who Johnson now refers to as his godmother, bursts with pride for what he’s made of his life. Between the career he excels at to the open, welcoming home he’s built and the nebulous family who depends on him — she loves to brag on his accomplishments.
“For a kid that was abandoned, he just went on. He didn’t look back at that,” Hayden says.