Somewhere in heaven there must he a nursery for battered kids like John Ryan Turner. A place where children whose bodies and spirits were broken by the parents they were entrusted to can at least find love.
—Raman Job, of Winnipeg, in a letter to the editor of the Miramichi Leader
Even at a time when evil walks the land—when housewives drown their own children, married couples hunt young girls like animals and angry men blow up day care centres under the guise of revenge—the short, horrible life of John Turner seems beyond belief. It ended on May 26, 1994, his three-year-old body weighing just 21 lb., his skeletal frame covered in bruises, cuts and sores, and his last days likely spent bound to his bed in a darkened room, gagged with a sock to muffle his cries. Last week, a New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench judge, Thomas Riordan, called the neglect and abuse by the child’s parents, Steven and Lorelei Turner, “deplorable, unexplainable.” Moments later, Riordan sentenced the couple—who were convicted of manslaughter on June 14—to 16 years in prison. Lorelei Turner doubled over, screaming, in the front row of the courtroom. But spectators clapped and cheered, and outside a crowd of more than 100 waited
in the parking lot to jeer the Turners as they were led out.
Anger and revulsion brought the onlookers there. But on another level the people of the gritty, working-class northern New Brunswick community of Miramichi, 200 km north of Fredericton, felt a burning sense of guilt. Witness after witness during the two-week trial gave emotional, tear-filled testimony that they suspected child abuse in the Turner home on Canadian Forces Base Chatham in the months before John Ryan died of starvation. And much of the strong emotion that the graphic court testimony stirred across the country focused on whether the community ultimately failed the boy. “For shame on you all that stood by—professionals and neighbors alike—and watched as a small child suffered and died a gruesome fate,” wrote Rada Pawa of Edmonton, among the avalanche of letters that poured into the weekly Miramichi Leader.
In fact, only during the trial did the enormity of the abuse and neglect become chillingly clear. The court heard how the boy was kept gagged, harnessed and tied to his bed. And it learned of the four arm fractures left to mend
on their own—and the diaper rash so severe that the boy’s genitals were scalded red.
Yet equally horrific was the story of how Lorelei Turner—31 years old and raised in Sault St. Marie, Ont,—rejected her son but doted on her younger daughter, two-year-old Amanda, and how Steven Turner, 32, a 14year armed forces veteran originally from Sudbury, Ont., largely ignored the boy. They screamed at Ryan for crying and not sleeping, and ridiculed him for showing normal childhood fears. Indeed, after Amanda was born, John was seldom seen at all. “I saw Steven and Lorelei and a little girl on a few occasions leaving in the car. I never seen a boy,” said Ricky Ketch, a military police officer who lived near the Turners.
Medical officials testified that John Ryan received no medical treatment during the last 19 months of his life. But pediatric neurologist David Meek said it was probably emotional pain, rather than physical damage, that killed him. In Meek’s view, the boy likely suffered from a disorder called psycho-socio dwarfism, a condition in which children fail to thrive because they are deprived of love and emotional support. In the end, John Ryan simply retreated into his own world, refused to eat, and starved to death. “His short life was extremely sad; his death tragic,” said Riordan.
Throughout the trial, defence lawyers— who said the Turners should go to jail for no more than eight years—argued that outside agencies should have known about the neglect and were ultimately responsible. But last week, Judge Riordan dismissed that argument outright, declaring that the pair were “well aware help could be obtained and they either refused or omitted to get help.” The Turners will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of their sentence. Meantime, their lawyers are appealing the sentence and a custody hearing for their daughter is set for this week.
The community’s grief may have just begun. Some—in particular, senior CFB Chatham officers and a number of career military families who publicly denied that the close-knit armed forces community protected the Turners from abuse charges before John Ryan’s death—have united against critics who say they must accept some of the blame for the boy’s death. Others, though, maintain that the community must confront its sense of collective grief directly. As Shelly Cohen, a
memorial service for John Ryan: “The more that the pain is denied, the pain goes deeper into our souls.” It is only when that pain is finally exorcised, she suggested, that the residents of the Miramichi will be able to put this dark episode behind them.
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