In the weeks leading up to his death, 7-year-old Seth Johnson stopped sleeping, took hours to eat a meal, and would occasionally shake and throw himself down the stairs. He developed blisters and scrapes on his legs, two large lesions on the backs of his heels and bruising all over his body.
Yet as the boy’s parents witnessed Seth’s suffering, they sought no medical attention for him, authorities said. Three days before Seth’s death, despite his worsening conditions, the Johnsons left the ill boy in the care of his 16-year-old brother so they could attend an out-of-town wedding.
Seth would later die on a mattress with no blanket covered in his own vomit.
His parents, Timothy D. Johnson, 39, and Sarah N. Johnson, 38, were charged last week with gross misdemeanor child neglect in connection with the boy’s March 30, 2015, death, which was caused by an inflamed pancreas and possible infections in a number of wounds, according to a criminal complaint posted online by local station KSTP.
Prosecutors did not receive the case until December 2015, almost nine months after the boy’s death, because it was in the hands of investigators until that point. In a statement, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said the office initially approached the case as a homicide, given the boy’s physical injuries and apparent emotional trauma. But after a year of reviewing the evidence and medical information, investigators could not link the parents’ alleged actions — or alleged lack of actions — to Seth’s pancreatitis and death. As a result, Freeman said, prosecutors imposed the most serious charge the law allows, the gross misdemeanor charge of neglect of a child resulting in substantial physical harm.
Despite the boy’s ailing condition, the Johnsons “refused to do what most parents would have done and take him to a doctor,” Freeman said, adding that prosecutors “cannot comprehend” the parents’ actions.
When he was 3 years old, Seth was placed into foster care in the Johnsons’ home, located in Plymouth, a large western suburb of Minneapolis that Money magazine named the No. 1 city in which to live in the country in 2008.
When Seth joined the family, Sarah Johnson described him as a “bright child,” a complaint stated, and a pediatrician found that he was a normal, “thriving, conversant preschooler.” When he was 4, the family adopted him and began home schooling him. Another medical exam at age 5 did not indicate any medical issues.
But in the weeks leading up to his death, Seth’s behavior changed significantly. He suffered, among many injuries, two large lesions on the back of each heel that were consistent with pressure ulcers, according to a criminal complaint — injuries that would not typically be present “if a child is mobile.” He had “breaks on his skin on the majority of his body,” including bruises on his face, arms, chest, buttocks and lower torso. The parents would not tell police how Seth’s injuries developed, and simply said the boy was always hurting himself.
The parents had “issues with going to doctors”, they told authorities, and instead relied on their own research, giving the boy vitamins, “medical honey” and Neosporin, adding later that they “prayed” for the boy’s health. Using their own research, the Johnsons “diagnosed” the child with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, claiming he had been previously diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and reactive attachment disorder, even though the clinic they referenced had no record of diagnosing or treating Seth.
When the Johnsons were at the out-of-town wedding, their 16-year-old son called to tell them that Seth had stopped talking, could not get out of bed, had not been eating, and was “lethargic and limp.” The parents were about to head home upon hearing of his condition, until the 16-year-old called back and said Seth was eating some Cheerios.
They returned home that Sunday night and found Seth lying on the floor, unresponsive. “They prayed for his health,” the complaint read, but decided to wait until the morning before potentially seeking medical care for the child. The parents brought him to the dinner table, putting two small bites of pizza in his mouth, before giving him a bath and putting him to sleep on a mattress in their room. They left him in a diaper and long-sleeved shirt, with no blanket or pillow, and found him the next morning covered in vomit.
The parents called 911, cleaned him off and began CPR on the bathroom floor. Medical responders pronounced Seth dead at the home at 8:05 a.m.
After their son’s death, the Johnsons created a crowdfunding page on Youcaring.com, raising $7,000 to “ease the financial burdens” of funeral expenses and leave from work, so that “Tim and Sarah can focus on getting their family through this difficult time.” Their son, they wrote, died unexpectedly in their home.
On the fundraising page, which has since closed, the Johnsons wrote that Seth “was a very quiet and hurting little boy” when he joined their family.
“His family embraced him completely and loved him unconditionally, and slowly began to see growth and change,” they wrote.
His parents “taught him about God’s love,” they added. “What it meant to be loved. What it meant to give love.”
In a Facebook post connected to the fundraising page, the parents spoke of their grief.
“We couldn’t walk, we didn’t know how to get out of bed,” they wrote. “And you came. You stood by us, you took us by the hand, you fed us, watched over our children, loved them, cleaned our home, prayed for us.”
Neither of the Johnsons is in custody. It is not clear based on local media reports whether either parent is represented by an attorney or has entered a plea. Both have court appearances set for Jan. 31, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, said his office will ask for the strongest penalty allowed under the law. According to the criminal complaint, each parent could serve up to a year, if convicted.
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