Columns 2014

Foster parents are our boots on the ground

Last week, a young man named Peter John Henry was charged as an adult with the murder of his foster father Marvell Johnson. Henry is 16 years old. Marvell was 64. Two lives ended prematurely, one in death and the other in what almost surely will be a very long prison sentence if convicted. What makes this sad situation even more tragic is that Henry was a foster child. Johnson was one of those silent heroes in our community, a foster parent trying to give children with less than a good start in life a chance to heal and achieve some measure of peace for him or herself.

Being a foster parent is one of those callings that’s hard to fathom. You open your home and heart to kids with multiple problems ranging from birth-acquired issues such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder to life-acquired issues due to parental neglect and abuse or their own substance abuse. Despite a few exceptions, foster kids are a challenge, especially the foster children Marvell Johnson and his wife Sherry took in. They opened their homes to youth from the juvenile justice system.

For kids in state custody, foster parents are the boots on the ground in the fight to give them a second chance at a decent life. The judges see the children only during hearings and read about their progress through reports made by a variety of therapists and social service workers. Those workers and therapists, in turn, deal with these children through visits and phone calls. But full time, 24 hours a day, there are the foster parents. These are the people who take on the sometimes very difficult task of creating a home for children who have often already been scarred by life in ways most of us can’t imagine. They get to try to find reasonable ways to deal with children who are sometimes not only damaged by life but also have no idea what a real home is like. Foster parents take on the challenge because they believe that every child has the right to know what a home is really like, every child has the right to sleep at night without fear of who will come in their door, every child has the right to some happy childhood memories. Most realize that at best they are offering these children a safe place to be until they become adults because healing all the harm already done to them is nearly impossible. But they keep trying.

Marvel Johnson and his wife raised their own family first and then tried to help other children not lucky enough to be born into the kind of family his was. His 35 years as a volunteer DJ at local public radio station KSKA is a testament to his clear belief that if you are a member of a community, you participate in community life and try to give back to the community that supports you.

The young man who so callously took Johnson’s life will probably never be able to understand the impulse that leads someone to give themselves to others in order to make life a little better all around. That young man probably never had much of a chance himself. Now, angry with his foster father for taking away some privileges and high on Spice, he has ended his future before it began – a future that Marvell and Sherry tried so hard to give him.

At some point in his life, Peter John Henry learned that life is cheap and taking it is no big deal. I can’t imagine what he experienced that led him to believe that killing was a perfectly acceptable response to being grounded. Not that it really matters anymore, because he is no longer a kid in the juvenile justice system receiving treatment and help for his issues. He’s an adult facing possible life in prison where there are no social workers or juvenile probation officers or foster parents looking to help him.

Henry took a good life away from this community and, in doing so, took his own life away from himself.  It is a double loss and a double tragedy. We’ll never know what further good Marvell Johnson would have done for kids in this state. And Henry will never know what potential there might have been for his future because he ended that future with one Spiced fueled night of violence.