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Sharing Henry’s Story

Foreheads touching, Marissa and Henry Johnson sing together.

The four-year-old boy and his mother finish one of his favorite songs, and his agitated face quickly turns into a delighted smile. “I love you, a bushel and a peck,” he sings, squeezing his mother with joy.

“He loves music, anything that makes noise he’s immediately drawn to it,” says Marissa, walking with Henry through a park near their Hartford home. “We’re so glad we get to hear his voice.”

The little boy with a wavy brown mop top has motivated his parents to become advocates against abuse. When Henry was about six months old, he was severely shaken while at daycare. Unlike many victims of shaken baby syndrome, Henry survived.

Sharing his story

Rather than focus on the tragedy, his family chose to use his story and their voices to educate others. Marissa has partnered with Child’s Voice, to tell her son’s story to parents, child care providers and the community. Child’s Voice is a nationally accredited child advocacy center at Sanford Health that provides medical evaluations and forensic interviews for children who may be victims of child abuse and neglect. Child’s Voice also provides crisis counseling and victim advocacy to the families of the child victims. “The only thing we can do is to help him be the best he can be and try to stop this from happening to other families,” the mother says.

Henry’s family is partnering with Child’s Voice a member of CACSD to host a 5K run/walk April 22 to raise dollars and awareness for child abuse prevention. Proceeds from “Henry’s Run” will help Child Advocacy Centers of South Dakota fund child abuse prevention efforts such as "The Period of Purple Crying," program which is a DVD and booklet for new parents to educate them about normal crying and the dangers of shaking a baby. “Sharing this message is important for parents and anyone else who might care for a child,” says Dr. Nancy Free, director of Child’s Voice. “Speaking out requires courage, but it can do so much good.”

A life forever changed

Henry was just six months old when his life changed drastically, his mother said. When he started attending daycare just weeks before, Henry’s parents noticed an increase in vomiting and drastic changes to his sleep schedule.

One day, when his father Steven came to pick the baby up, Henry was limp and pale. The worried father took his son immediately to a doctor who discovered that the baby’s brain had been seriously damaged. His brain tissue had sustained the kind of injury that would normally be seen by a baby involved in a high impact car accident.

He had so much trauma inside his skull that one third of his body’s blood had gone to his head. A scan of Henry’s brain also showed signs of partially healed damage that had been inflicted within the past few weeks.

“When they did the scan they knew it was shaken baby syndrome,” Marissa says. “We didn’t know if he was even going to live. We thought we might lose him.”

Overcoming challenges

At the time, doctors warned the family that Henry might never develop normally. He is completely blind and has developmental delays that require close and constant supervision. Henry did enter rehabilitative care immediately and has already surpassed many milestones that doctors thought he would never reach, walking and talking and even singing his favorite songs.

His mother says he loves cell phones and the remote for the Wii, anything that makes sounds. He begs to open and shut doors. He can talk with his parents and interacts sometimes lovingly and sometimes not so lovingly with his three-year-old sister.

“He’ll go up to her and poke her and then go run away,” his mother says with a smile. “It some ways it’s irritating and then you’re happy because it’s also very normal.”

Marissa says she tries not to think about what Henry’s life might have been like, but instead to concentrate on the things that her child loves – like music and spending time with family. The family is making plans to soon move to Aberdeen, where their son will be able to attend a school for blind children.

While it’s difficult to talk about the abuse that changed her little boy’s life, Marissa said that she and her husband want to help other families.

Posted Date: April 2012