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Special Reports

‘The state that neglected me as a kid is the same state that wants to kill me’

The man in the white short sleeve jumpsuit sat in a 3-by-3-foot cage-like booth, waiting patiently for the clock to start ticking on his time to talk.

Then he picked up the phone in cubicle 34 and began to tell his story.

“My name is Gerald Marshall. I’m 37 years old. I spent about 10 years of my childhood in foster care.”

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He’s spending the remainder of his life on Texas death row.

“The state that neglected me as a kid and allowed me to age out of its support,” he said, “is the same state that wants to kill me.”


Marshall’s early life story is a familiar one. Removed from his home because of severe neglect, he entered a system that was supposed to, by the state’s own definition, protect and care for him.

Instead, Marshall’s chaotic journey through foster care put him on a path leading to another state-run institution: prison.

The Star, as part of a yearlong investigation into the long-term outcomes of foster children, surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in a dozen states. The surveys contained 15 questions that asked inmates about their criminal histories and childhoods.

Experts said the survey results provide a rare look at how early trauma and foster care have scarred some children for a lifetime.

Of those who responded, 1 in 4 offenders said they had been in state care. Fifteen percent said they had been convicted of murder or attempted murder.

Marshall, Inmate #999489 in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system, is facing execution for killing an employee of a fast-food restaurant in Houston during an attempted robbery in 2003. He was 20 and out of foster care less than three years when he was charged with the murder of a mentally disabled man who worked at Whataburger.

And while he doesn’t blame foster care for his incarceration, Marshall said growing up in an environment that lacked trust and compassion put him “on a path to destruction for myself and others.”

“I did not love myself, so I was living a very reckless life,” he said from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, which houses the state’s death row inmates. “I was drinking, doing drugs, committing crimes, just doing things that did not have a positive effect on my life.

“I think for a lot of us, we don’t realize how we become dangerous to other humans because we do not care about ourselves, nor do we care about others.”

‘Foster care is a risk factor’

They committed brutal acts. For that, they evoke little — if any — sympathy from the public.

But for foster kids, that lack of sympathy begins before the first crimes are committed.

“We think foster care ought to be a protective factor for children and it’s not — foster care is a risk factor,” said Sean O’Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has represented many former foster children.

“They take the kid in and then almost every adult beyond that point that touches this kid, they’re like, ‘What is the matter with you?’ They treat them like little criminals.”

Many go on to earn the title.

Joseph Nelson spent nearly a decade in and out of Missouri’s beleaguered child welfare system. His first foster home was with Tammy and Tim Spears, a couple he soon called “Miss Tammy” and “Mr. Tim,” then Mom and Dad.

Theirs was a home filled with structure, love and foster kids. In the past 23 years, Tammy Spears said she and her husband have fostered more than 300 kids and adopted 22.

Just as Nelson was getting comfortable, the state sent him back home at his mom’s request, only to remove him again and again because she was unable to provide the structure he appeared to thrive on.

Nelson stayed with the Spearses, on and off, between 8 and 14. Despite the Spearses’ desire to adopt the boy they called Joe, his mother refused to sever her rights.

“I guess I was mad at the Spears for letting me go,” Nelson said. “Then I was mad at my mom. I was angry.”

Joseph Nelson, convicted of three counts of second-degree murder, is serving a 33-year-sentence at the South Central Correctional Facility in Licking, Missouri. Shelly Yang

At 18, after living in residential treatment centers, Nelson aged out of foster care with little support or preparation. “They just drop you like their job is done,” he said. “Once I got out of foster care, they just hang you out to dry.”

On Sept. 8, 2015, a 22-year-old Nelson got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend in her south Kansas City home. After Bianca R. Fletcher allegedly threw a diaper box and hit him in the head, Nelson became enraged, according to news reports at the time.

He shot and killed her. Later, he would say “other things had to be done.”

He then turned the gun on his ex-girlfriend’s 1-year-old son and her new boyfriend, Shannon Rollins. The boy, Joseph, was believed to be Nelson’s child but prosecutors never confirmed paternity.

Tammy Spears couldn’t bring herself to go to any of the court hearings. But she insists she never stopped caring for the kid who was caught up in a tug-of-war with his foster family and his mom. Ultimately, no one won — and Nelson was on his own.

“The system is responsible for what happened to him,” Spears said. “His life could have been so different than it is now.”

Lori Ross, whose life’s work has been raising and caring for foster kids and guiding the parents who take them in, posted an angry message on Facebook after Nelson was charged four years ago. Another former foster child had also recently been arrested in a separate homicide.

“I am FURIOUS that we as a society fail to make the direct connection between the way we devalue children who are being abused and the adults that they become …,” Ross wrote. “Start asking the next time (today probably) that someone commits a heinous crime, whether that person was in Foster care or residential treatment. … A few years ago he was an eight year old boy … and WE HAD A CHANCE TO MAKE THIS STORY HAVE A DIFFERENT ENDING!!!!!! SHAME ON US!”

The South Central Correctional Facility in Licking, Missouri. Shelly Yang

Nelson is serving a 33-year sentence in the South Central Correctional Facility in southern Missouri. He doesn’t blame others for his crimes, but says he has made some wrong decisions in life because of “the influence of foster care.”

He wonders what life would have been like if he had been adopted by the Spearses. So does Tammy, even though she knows her reach is limited.

“You can’t make up for the hurt they have, but you can set them on the path to heal,” she said. “I may not heal every child that comes through my home, but it is my fervent hope and prayer that we change the trajectory of their lives by being in it.”

‘A horrible way to live’

Marshall and his three siblings spent their Texas childhoods in squalor. Their mother was addicted to crack cocaine, he said, and would disappear for days at a time.

“We didn’t have any lights, we didn’t have any food because my mother used to sell our food for crack,” he said. “And we didn’t have any utilities, water, anything like that. We used to burn candles. It was a horrible way to live.”

When Marshall was nearly 6, he jumped unsupervised into an apartment swimming pool and almost drowned. Witnesses called police, and the children were removed from their home.

“I didn’t fully understand what was happening,” he said. “I mean, I saw my mom smoking crack, selling our food and stuff like that. I thought that was not right. Even still, I never thought I would be in foster care for the majority of my childhood.”

Marshall said he didn’t even know what foster care was at the time. “All I knew is we were getting something to eat — three meals a day.”

After more than two years in foster care, Marshall and his older sister were sent to live with their father. They stayed with him for about three years but were removed because of severe abuse, Marshall said, and returned to foster care.

At that home, Marshall said, he related to the other kids because of what they all were going through. But it never lasted, and Marshall never established meaningful connections.

“And one day I would come home and the kids that I have a relationship with, they were gone,” he said.

Soon, he would have no home at all.

Experiences shared from across country

Inmates responding to The Star’s survey shared various reasons for why they were removed from their homes.

Some said it was for neglect, poverty and parental drug addiction. For others, it was for abuse and family violence, or a parent going to jail.

“Because my relatives were poor, I was unable to live with them according to CYS (Children and Youth Services),” said a 38-year-old Pennsylvania inmate who was in foster care for nine years before he aged out. “I feel this is wrong. Being in the foster care system, I feel, made me into a monster. I craved to be with my family.”

Of the survey respondents, 34 percent said they aged out of the foster care system without a permanent home.

A 39-year-old Kansas inmate who went into state care when she was 8 years old said she wasn’t given any preparation for the real world.

“I was never told I was going to be put out,” she said. “Nor was I helped with getting a place to live or told about any resources available to me. I did have a job but I was young and was not prepared to hold it properly so lost it quickly. I was never taught any skills to prepare me for adulthood.”

An inmate from Arizona shared a similar experience.

“I think that the foster care system should have more programs and help us be successful when we do get out of the system,” the 28-year-old said.

The largest percentage of inmates responding to The Star’s survey said they entered foster care between ages 11 and 15. Experts say the older you are when entering foster care, especially if you are in your adolescent and teen years, the less likely you are to be adopted.

A 53-year-old inmate from Oklahoma, who spent two years in care when he was an older teenager, said too many foster children don’t get the therapy they need to overcome the trauma they faced.

“Children just fell through the cracks without any state organization giving any effort to protect or provide any real services to fix any damage these children suffered in their young lives. Anyone can be changed for the better with the proper amount of help.”

Calls for help unanswered

Kisa Van Dyne’s introduction to the criminal justice system came at age 9.

Frightened, she sat in a Kansas courtroom and told how her babysitter’s husband had sexually assaulted her when she was 6. Her testimony helped send the pedophile to prison.

Now 32, Van Dyne just finished serving a prison sentence of her own — released this month from the Topeka Correctional Facility after doing five years for aggravated robbery and kidnapping.

“My life before going into the foster care system could best be described as perfected chaos,” Van Dyne said.

Her parents divorced before she knew her father, and her mother married several times. When she was 7, gang members broke into their trailer and nearly beat her mom to death in front of her. The family went through a series of moves. By the time Van Dyne was 13, she’d attended 13 schools. She was having mental breakdowns, and her mom could no longer control her.

That same year, she went into foster care. And she kept moving.

Over the next several years, Van Dyne was in and out of psychiatric hospitals, foster homes, group homes, youth shelters and juvenile detention centers across Kansas. But her mental health needs were never met or the trauma addressed, she said.

“There was no talk about it with my foster parents, there was no talk about it even with my case managers,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was here in prison, is where I’ve done the most healing.”

Constantly relocating, she said, “makes you feel like you’re just a little ping pong ball.”

“You don’t feel like you belong. .... You feel invisible even.”

Former foster child Kisa Van Dyne recently finished a prison sentence for aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Shelly Yang

Van Dyne was so desperate to get out of foster care that she talked a friend into marrying her and enlisted in the U.S. Army’s delayed entry program at 17. But by the time her emancipation was finalized — five months before her 18th birthday — “I was so strung out that I really did not care.”

Over the next several years, her life spun out of control. And in 2013, Van Dyne was involved in a kidnapping and robbery stemming from a drug debt. Van Dyne and a 40-year-old man were charged, and she was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.

Van Dyne said she didn’t believe the state made her life any better when it became her parent. She said she realizes now that her mom was just trying to help when she made that first call to authorities nearly 20 years ago.

“The other people that I was in foster care with, we had kind of talked about, ‘Oh, we’re just throwaways. We’re the ones that no one wants.’ For a long time as a teenager, I felt like she threw me away, too. But that wasn’t the case. She just didn’t know what to do.

“A lot of us that are in here, our children have gone into foster care as well,” she said. “And so here we go, into a cycle.”

Belongings in a garbage bag

When Marshall was 17, his foster mom walked into the kitchen while he was washing dishes. She told him he would have to move out soon.

“So when I turned 18, I put everything I had in a garbage bag, and I walked out the door.”

Marshall’s birth mother took him home, reuniting him with his siblings. But before long, he said, it was clear their mother was still addicted to crack. She was constantly demanding money for her drugs, he said, and when he stopped giving it to her, she kicked him out.

Homeless, he started stealing food from stores. To sleep, he rode the Metro buses for hours at a time. Occasionally, he’d get a cheap motel room for a night.

“During that time, I was suicidal,” he said. “I was alone. No place to go, no one cared. I was really, really at my lowest.”

He lived with relatives for a while and tried college, dropping out after 2½ semesters. He then moved in with a woman — a mother of six who introduced him to cocaine, he said. He was arrested for selling drugs and was given probation. He couldn’t keep a job, broke up with the woman and moved out. She was pregnant with his child.

“I had a baby on the way, my sister had two kids and was about to be evicted,” he said. “I felt as if I had to do something.”

He began stealing and breaking into businesses, doing whatever he could to support his worsening habit. One day, he and two other men were riding around looking for a place to steal from when they came across the manager of a Whataburger whom Marshall knew from a job at another restaurant a few years earlier. The manager came up with a plan, Marshall said — stage a robbery at the restaurant.

But the night it took place, the manager didn’t show up. Christopher Dean, a longtime employee, was shot in the head while trying to comply with the robbers’ demands for money. Buried in his Whataburger uniform, Dean was 38.

Marshall said he was keeping watch outside when it happened, and one of the other men shot Dean. A few days later, he was arrested for capital murder.

Marshall insists he didn’t pull the trigger and has spent much of his 16 years in prison filing appeals.

Former foster child Gerald Marshall’s home is now on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Tammy Ljungblad

His mom testified at his sentencing in 2004. Wearing a prison-issued jumpsuit and serving time for drug possession, she said she’d been addicted to crack for years and hadn’t been able to take care of her son.

But prosecutor Vic Wisner said growing up in foster care and suffering physical abuse was not sufficient reason to spare Marshall’s life.

“He was given a bad set of parents,” Wisner said. “I guess he’s got a lifetime ‘I-can-commit-capital-murder-and-not-get-the-death-penalty’ card. That is what they’d have you believe. “

While in prison, Marshall wrote a book about his life: “999489: From Foster Care to Texas Death Row.” Dean’s family and others protested the sale of the book, saying he should not profit from the crime he committed and the pain he caused.

Marshall said while he doesn’t think foster care put him on death row, he does believe the system failed him.

“They came and took me out of a toxic environment and they were supposed to put me in a safe environment that nurtured me and allowed me to become a productive part of society,” he said.

“But instead, they put me in the same environment. The only difference was that I had food to eat and we had electricity and water. But I was still emotionally neglected.”

O’Brien, the university professor, has worked for 39 years as a criminal defense attorney. He’s defended cases like Marshall’s, even gotten some clients exonerated. He said a “strong majority” of his defendants over the years spent time in foster care.

He believes foster kids are trying to signal what’s wrong but no one is listening.

“We need to be looking at aberrant behavior in children as a warning sign not that there’s something wrong with this child, but is there something dreadfully wrong in this child’s environment?”

Foster care, he’s concluded after four decades on the front lines, doesn’t — and isn’t designed to — give damaged kids the therapy they need.

“What is really essential in all of these cases,” he said, “is that if we were to respond more therapeutically than we do, we could cut the Bureau of Prisons’ budget in half or more.”

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