Extraordinary Parent: Reaping happiness from tragedy
Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Couple raises kin after killing By Mandy Burrell
(Left to right) Jasmine Johnson, Tateyonna Johnson, Amber Johnson and Leomie Walton all work on making a cake in an "Easy Bake Oven" on a typical Friday afternoon at the Waltons' South Side home.
Angela Walton thought she had overslept as she rushed to answer the loud knocking at the door of her South Side home early one Monday in February. It was still dark but, as a licensed day care provider, Walton was used to rising before dawn every weekday to take in her earliest charges.
Startled from her sleep, Walton didn't realize it was 4:30 a.m. and she had no way of knowing how her life would change as soon as she opened the door. On the porch was Angela's stepfather, waiting to tell her that her youngest sister, Antoinette LeShawn Johnson, was dead.
"It felt like a nightmare," says Gregory, Angela's husband and partner in the day care business.
Squad cars lined the Waltons' street from one end to the other and police lines roped off her mother's home, four houses down. It was there that Shawn, as she was known to her family and friends, lived with her four children. Within the hour, the Waltons learned Shawn had been strangled and fatally shot in the head by her husband, Oscar Johnson. He attacked her in the basement of the home while three of the children slept upstairs. The youngest, still a baby, rested in the basement, unharmed, atop Johnson's suicide note. By the time police found Johnson, he had shot himself in the head. Shawn died instantly, her husband died the next morning at Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
By the end of that day, Angela and Gregory Walton and their three children, added four more to the family: Amber, now 9; Tateyonna, 6; Jasmine, 5; and Trashawn, 2.
Changing lives In 1997, Angela and Gregory Walton did have the average family. Both were employed at area hospitals, and they were the parents of three children--daughter Leomie, now 18, and sons Gregory Jr., 14, and Juwan, 9. They didn't particularly love their jobs: Gregory worked at Cook County Hospital in food service, Angela in Christ Hospital's lab. At one point, Gregory took a 10-week summer course in carpentry, but a childhood hip injury forced him to abandon that and go back to the hospital, where, if nothing else, he could rely on a steady paycheck.
Then, in early 1998, the couple had no choice but to make a change: Their youngest, Juwan, was about to enter kindergarten. There were no all-day kindergarten programs available, and neither Angela or Gregory could leave work in the middle of the day to pick him up and take him to afternoon day care.
That's when Angela decided it was time to begin offering day care in their home.
She had plenty of experience raising children. As the oldest of five, Angela watched and learned from her mother who raised all of her own children and several siblings. Angela's grandmother died when her mother was 21, leaving young children behind.
Angela, it seems, was to follow in her mother's footsteps: When Angela's mother had a debilitating stroke in March 2001, Angela cared for her Monday through Friday; her sister Natasha took over on weekends.
"My mother calls me old-fashioned," Angela says. "I guess I never really palled around with younger kids. I was always taking care of everybody."
So, day care came naturally to Angela. She got on a childcare provider waiting list with Chicago's Department of Children and Family Services, took an orientation classes in April 1998 and became licensed Sept. 3 that year. Gregory quit his job and joined her in 1999.
Easier transition In many ways the Waltons' career shift went a long way in easing the transition when Angela and Gregory took in their nieces and nephew. For one thing, providing day care gave them the time and energy to become more hands-on parents. It would make a big difference when they suddenly had to be hands on with seven, rather than three, kids.
"When we were working, we'd come home and be so tired," Angela says. "If we checked homework, we did; if we didn't, we didn't. Now, after school, there's two kids on his side and two on my side. No questions--and no X-Box--on weeknights."
A more structured household order affected more than just homework. The couple began to plan their calendar a year in advance, to give clients ample notice to find alternative childcare during vacations. Leaving shoes at the door and picking up toys became not only a housekeeping routine, but a business matter. Also, Gregory says, without the guarantee of steady paychecks, he and his wife became choosier with their spending, scaling back on unnecessary consumption.
"We learned to simplify our lives," Gregory says. "We don't need a whole lot of credit cards to get by. We know we only have a few bills to make a month, and we pay those off and know that then we don't have to answer to anyone. We've got a lot of freedom."
Admittedly, since February, the Waltons have had much less freedom. The family cancelled a planned August New York vacation and instead rented a 15-passenger van to visit Lincoln Park Zoo, Santa's Village, Indiana Beach and the Lighthouse Mall in Michigan City, Ind. The more economical travel allowed the entire family to be together--key to helping the Johnson children feel they are part of the Walton family, says Gregory.
That transition was not as difficult as it would seem, however. Before Shawn died, Angela and Gregory were the paid daycare providers for Shawn and Oscar's four children. Angela's family has always been very close and since she and Shawn lived on the same block, the children were frequently at the house.
It's been almost a year since that cold February morning, but the family seems to have adjusted better than any of them expected.
"This is something that hit us totally out of the blue," Gregory says. "But in a lot of ways, the situation isn't that much different than it was before. Her family was over all the time, so the kids were used to being here."
But the Waltons say they never want Shawn's children to forget about her. "We show Trashawn pictures of her and he says, ‘It's Mommy,'" Angela says. The Waltons, who are Jehovah's Witnesses, rely on their faith to explain why this happened to the children. It also gives them hope and helps them get past the grief. Though Shawn was not a Jehovah's Witness, her children attended Sunday meetings with the Waltons before her death, and continue to do so now. The family believes that Shawn's death was not the end of her life. "We have hope that we'll see her again," Angela says.
The Waltons also allow Oscar's family to visit the children, something they say was never a question in their mind.
"Their father's mother told me she wanted me to raise the kids because she knew how I raised my own kids," Angela says. "It wasn't their fault. You can't fault an entire family for the actions of one person."
Family frustrations It's not that the Walton brood never gets frustrated. In fact, the Waltons put aside part of every Friday night for a family meeting to air frustrations.
Gregory spends the first part of the evening teaching the children more about faith. The children can then raise concerns about one another, school issues or questions of faith. After Gregory has addressed those concerns, he raises his own issues with his clan, pointing out if any of them have been particularly difficult--or particularly good--that week.
The Walton children are a remarkably well-behaved bunch. Angela says that Shawn's children, particularly her older girls, have come around quite a bit since they became full-time members of her household in February.
"I don't mean to pass judgment or be disrespectful of my sister, but I also don't want to sugar coat the situation," says Angela. "My sister was too wrapped up in her husband and all of their problems. She did not raise her girls the way they should have been raised."
Angela says that Shawn's oldest, Amber, kept her younger siblings in line. Since she's come to live with the Waltons, Angela says that they have impressed upon her the importance of acting like a child while she can.
"We let her know that she does not have to be the parent," she says. "We are the parents. She is the child."
The other children are coming out of their shells as well, says Angela, and she feels as though both families have gotten the hang of living together, from giving one another privacy to lending a hand when it's needed.
"We all work together," she says. "If we didn't we couldn't do it."
Gregory and Angela also say they try to schedule time for one another, whether a Saturday night date or a weekend away. But for a man who was dubbed Uncle Daddy by niece Amber, there isn't a whole lot of personal time.
"When we first got married, I told Angela I wouldn't mind having a big family, you know, maybe four or five kids," says Gregory, as he sits in the family room, watching 11 children play, do homework and giggle. "I could never have imagined this."
Gregory grew up with just one brother, who moved to Germany more than 20 years ago. Likewise, Angela, who took classes to become a phlebotomist but never went to college, could not have imagined being a teacher. Yet, there she is, everyday, taking her charges through a standard curriculum that teaches them colors, shapes and their ABCs.
And no one could have imagined Shawn's death. Though Shawn sought a protective order against her husband, she invited him back into her life, even allowing him to go on outings with her and the kids. The family had seen him get angry enough to damage property, but no one imagined he would take two lives.
"I wouldn't wish what happened to our family on anyone," Angela says. "But even though I'd rather have my sister here, her kids are being raised with values now. I always told her, ‘You can choose for your life, but your kids can't choose their parents.' They can be kids now, and that's good."
Mandy Burrell is a freelance writer and a designer for Chicago Parent.