A fragile baby and his sister find a foster home, thanks to Centers for Youth and Family and a big-hearted couple 

When the Centers for Youth and Family contacted Jenia and Arzo Johnson about fostering a sick 13-month-old baby, they were told he had respiratory problems thanks to his underdeveloped lungs, and was on oxygen. He'd been born 27 weeks premature, so little he fit in his mother's hand at birth. He could not swallow, so he had what's called a "G button," for his gastrointestinal feeding tube. He could not sit up. He also had a little sister, 3 months old. Would they take the children for 10 days while a permanent foster home was found?

Jenia Johnson said she was a bit overwhelmed at the request, since she had no medical training, though did know CPR. But then she thought, "OK, what would I do if he was my child?" She looked at her husband and they agreed: "We said we can do this."

The Johnsons, who have fostered around 60 children since their first work with the Centers in 1993, picked up Richard and Lindsey (not their real names) from Arkansas Children's Hospital. Both babies had been abused. Richard had fractured ribs, a fractured thigh, a fractured finger. Lindsey had fractured ribs. The respiratory therapist explained how to use the machine that monitors Richard's pulse oxygen, with a little band attached to his toe. Then the Johnsons took the babies home, becoming part of the Centers' Therapeutic Foster Homes for the medically or emotionally fragile.

"We were on pins and needles," Jenia Johnson said. A beep that told them Richard's pulse ox was low went off several times in the night and either Jenia or Arzo would go in and check on him. If his oxygen was too low, off they'd go to the ER. Once he was so sick that Children's transported him by ambulance from one of its own clinics to its emergency room.

The children have now been with the Johnsons for 10 months, not 10 days. When Centers tried to find a permanent placement for the siblings, they could only find people who wanted Lindsey, but not her ailing brother. The Johnsons have agreed to keep them until they can be fostered together, rather than split up.

Both Arzo and Jenia are 53 years old. They have a foster son, 12, and an adopted son, 13; taking care of them along with an infant would be a lot of work with a well child, much less a delicate baby and his little sister. But the Johnsons want to help. They are "comfortable," Jenia said, and she can stay home. (Arzo works as an absconder agent for the state; he was the agent who urged the state not to release Darrell Dennis, who after he was freed was charged in the murder of an 18-year-old.) The Johnsons live in a large home in Otter Creek that was the cleanest house this reporter has ever stepped inside, with sweet decorations in the nursery and a little Christmas tree. They have adopted four of the children they have fostered over the years.

"It takes two mature people to render services to these children," Jenia Johnson said. She did not criticize Richard and Lindsey's mother, saying she was too young and had no support system. "I am so glad I have a community of support," Jenia said.

Her "team," as she calls them, includes therapists for the children from both the Department of Human Services and Youth Home, and therapeutic day care for Richard, where he receives speech and physical therapy at the Kids First program of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. They have case workers and the staff at Children's have been a great help: "They don't look at me like I am out of my mind" when Jenia takes Richard in because "he doesn't look right" and she wants their advice, Jenia said. They have a large van to drive the kids around. Arzo's parents lend a hand; his mother also fostered children.

Richard has thrived under the team's care. He no longer uses the G Button, but can drink Pediacare and eat pudding and he can hold his spoon. He can now sit up. He can say "ball" and "baby." Little sister Lindsey has a bigger vocabulary — but, of course, she is a girl.

"It keeps you on your toes," Jenia said. "I feel as though I'm doing something, making a difference."

The Centers for Youth and Family Therapeutic Family Homes Program is run from the Elizabeth Mitchell Children's Center at 6601 W. 12th St. Leah Williams is director. Centers also operates the Elizabeth Mitchell Adolescents' Center, a Youth Emergency Shelter, offers day treatment in North Little Rock and is headquartered at 5905 Forest Place, where it does outpatient counseling and operates a parent center. The therapeutic foster program allows for some reimbursement for travel and medical care from Medicaid. Centers also has programs in Monticello and Eudora.

To donate to or find out more about the Centers for Youth and Family and its Therapeutic Family Homes Program, call 666-8686 or 888-868-0023.

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