The lost boy

Shondell Davis could feel her son Johnny slipping away, caught in the undertow of gangs and street. She tried everything; she even tried to turn him in. But nothing could save him. Her question is, why?

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / October 4, 2009

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Johnny Davis said it was just an accident, a slip of the knife while slicing cheese. But as Shondell Davis looked at her 18-year-old son in the emergency room that April night, she realized the gash on his hand could not account for the blood on his jacket. There was too much.

Since his last release from juvenile detention two months earlier, Johnny had been slipping away from her, drinking and smoking marijuana, growing more withdrawn.

Now, it looked like he had been in a street fight.

Shondell Davis did not hesitate. She called the police and asked whether anyone else had been brought into a city hospital with a stab wound. Yes, they replied, but it was not life-threatening.

Relief flooded her, soon followed by terror, not only about her son’s safety, but what he might be capable of. “I didn’t want to be the mother of someone who killed somebody,’’ she said.

For the next two weeks, Shondell Davis spent her days on the phone, calling Boston police, the Department of Youth Services, and hospitals, asking them to commit her son to their psychiatric wards. She called counselors Johnny had worked with, anyone who might help her keep her son safe. Her efforts failed.

On April 24, just before noon, Johnny Davis was shot dead on Homestead Street in Roxbury.

All too often, when young men drift into crime and die on the streets, their grieving relatives - at least publicly - project an image of disbelief, unable or unwilling to admit they saw it coming or that they had failed to help.

But Shondell Davis’s impassioned but futile efforts to save her son sent perhaps an even more troubling message: Sometimes doing everything you can to save your child simply isn’t enough. Her struggle also underscores the disjointed nature of the social service system she called on for help.

Now, Shondell is asking every agency she contacted to send her a letter attesting to her desperate calls, an exercise she hopes will help her find some answers and reaffirm her belief that she did all a mother could.

“I think the letters are a reflection of things that I did,’’ Shondell said. “I think I’m questioning the things that I did. You beat yourself up. Every area that you can, you beat yourself up.’’

Baby-faced, passionate about sports, and fiercely protective of his family, Johnny was one of six children, the youngest son of Shondell and Terry Davis, both of whom juggled jobs and family and were strict with their brood.

Johnny never had an easy time in school, but found support at home. Then, in 2000, when Terry’s diabetes took a major turn for the worse, the child appeared to become overwhelmed.

Often, Johnny was the caretaker at home for his weakened father, helping him make his way around the house after he lost a leg because of an infection.

“There was a real role reversal,’’ said Shondell, 43, a tall, sturdy pharmacy technician who wears her curly hair long and speaks with a calmness that belies her grief.

As Terry weakened, Johnny’s behavior worsened. Teachers would complain that he mouthed off, sometimes threatening them, Shondell said.

On a Sunday morning in 2004, Terry had a heart attack in front of the house and died at the hospital. Johnny, 13 at the time, had gone off to play basketball that morning and blamed himself for not being home.

He never played basketball again, his mother said.

Over the next five years, he was in and out of different schools and DYS custody, as he began to have run-ins with the law.

“He was a big kid and he was kind of a sad kid,’’ said Jenny Chou, an education law attorney who had known Johnny since he was about 8 years old and tried to help him navigate through different schools.

Chou said the schools, which included a residential treatment center in Natick and a school for troubled children in Boston, generally focused too much on trying to control Johnny’s behavior rather than finding out what might be causing it.

“I think he was never in a situation consistently where he could really work on that,’’ Chou said.

At 15, he was committed to the Department of Youth Services for the first time when he and two friends fired a pellet gun that shattered the glass of an MBTA bus stop, Shondell said. He was also charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.

A year later, in 2007, soon after he was expelled from the Natick school, Shondell reported him to DYS again, after she said he punched his older sister while they were on vacation in Florida - a violation of his probation. Johnny would remain in DYS custody until his 18th birthday in February, first in a treatment program and then in the agency’s most secure facility in Plymouth.

Over the years, his mother found him therapists, but his treatment was often interrupted by his time in custody.

Joseph Chen, a counselor at South Shore Mental Health, began meeting with Johnny about two years ago. In the letter he wrote to Shondell, he described Johnny as an adolescent with “considerable potential’’ whose guilt over his father’s death led him to become angry, depressed, and at times violent.

Chen, who declined to comment on the case, said in his letter that he was able to see Davis only once during his last stay with DYS and not at all after he was sent to Plymouth. A spokeswoman for DYS said the agency could not comment on Johnny’s case because juvenile records are confidential.

According to Shondell, Johnny was released straight from the Plymouth facility to a sober house in Everett, where he lived for a short while with older men who were trying to overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol.

It was not the right place for him, said Anthony Carvello, who runs Serenity House, but Johnny’s caseworker had urged him to take on the young man because he had to be far from Boston. Johnny Davis had ties to HBlock, a Roxbury gang in his neighborhood, and police believed he might go after the group’s enemies or be targeted himself. At about 6-foot-5-inches and 280 pounds, he was hard to miss.

Carvello said DYS should have tried to set Johnny up in a transitional facility with people closer to his age, where he could work on getting his diploma and receive therapy before returning home. Serenity House offered shelter, job opportunities, and structure, but Johnny’s needs were more complicated, Carvello said.

“I just feel like he was dropped on someone’s stairs,’’ Carvello said. “How did he end up with me? That’s what I don’t know.’’

Carvello managed to bond with Johnny, joking with him about his size. “Johnny, don’t eat anybody,’’ Carvello would shout out. And he gained the teenager’s confidence by telling him about the death of his own parents.

“He was a kid crying for help but just wanted to put up that big bully front,’’ Carvello said. “Once he warmed up to you, he was like a big baby.’’

About a week after he arrived at the sober house, sometime around the beginning of March, Shondell suffered a violent asthma attack and had to be hospitalized for a week. She called Johnny and asked him to come back to Roxbury, to take care of his little sister, Josephina. When she recovered three weeks later, she urged him to return to Serenity House, but he refused. He was hanging out on the streets again.

Just before midnight on April 9, Johnny Davis stumbled home, his hand bleeding profusely.

At the hospital, when Johnny told hospital workers that he cut his hand slicing cheese, Shondell turned to the nurses and said, “No, he didn’t.’’

“The only thing I could think was that somebody else’s baby was bleeding to death,’’ she said. The next day, she called Roxbury detectives and told them she had a bag of bloody clothes that could prove her son had stabbed another person. Police records show that a man was stabbed in the stomach on Homestead Street just after 11 the same night.

“It wasn’t about turning him in,’’ she said. “It was about saving him.’’

What happened next is a matter of dispute between Shondell and the police.

Elaine Driscoll, Boston police spokeswoman, said detectives went to the house to get the bag but were told by one of Shondell’s relatives that Johnny had left with it. They found him on the street, saw that he did not have the bag, and questioned him. They had no probable cause to arrest him and let him go. Driscoll said police later called Shondell but she did not return their calls.

Shondell said the officers came earlier than expected and she called police again that night. But they didn’t return for the clothes, which were still at her home, she said. According to her cellphone records, she placed a call to Roxbury detectives at 7 that night. It was not until three months later that a witness told police it was Johnny who committed the stabbing on Homestead Street.

After his mother’s attempt to turn over the clothes, Johnny was furious.

“He wouldn’t talk to me at all about it,’’ she said. “He wouldn’t tell me what was happening.’’

Desperate, she tried to have him recommitted to DYS, but he was now 18 and they could not hold him. The hospitals gave her the same response.

A police officer she knew suggested a last-ditch strategy: Get a restraining order against Johnny, then accuse him of violating it so he would be incarcerated. At the very least, it would keep him off the streets for a little while, the officer told her.

But that would give him an adult criminal record, and Shondell worried Johnny would blame her if he was unable to get a job later. She rebuffed the officer’s advice, a decision she still regrets.

“I wish to hell I would have’’ filed the restraining order, Davis said. “I wish I would have lied on my own son so I could be visiting him in some institution.’’

She began collecting the letters almost immediately after the funeral. Some people, like one of the officers she tried to give the bag of evidence to, have refused, she said. Others, including a Roxbury patrolman who has known her for decades, have written letters detailing the treatment she tried to seek for Johnny and praising her for doing what she could.

But she is still riddled with self-doubt. Although three of her children are doing well, raising families or going to college, another son is in jail and her baby, 7-year-old Josephina, is struggling to cope.

The child has night terrors and hates to sleep alone. Like her brother after his father’s death, Josephina won’t talk about Johnny. Her behavior is so much like Johnny’s was when he was a child, and it terrifies Shondell.

“Am I going to lose her, too?’’ she asked. “Is it me? Am I not doing a good enough job?’’