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Heeding cries for help from discarded, disconnected young men

Ruett and Rhonda Foster lost their 7-year-old to gang violence. Now they make wrenching visits to youthful convicts, serving what they call 'a God of second chances.'

July 05, 2013|Sandy Banks
  • Rhonda Foster, her son, Alec, 16, and her husband, Ruett, pose with a framed portrait of Evan Foster in their Compton home. Evan, 7, was shot and killed at an Inglewood park in 1997. Rhonda Foster works with gang-prevention programs. Ruett Foster is a pastor and social worker. Together they make regular visits to local youth prisons, reaching out to troubled young men.
Rhonda Foster, her son, Alec, 16, and her husband, Ruett, pose with a framed… (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los…)

It's a story line that's become so familiar over the years it hardly makes us blink: A gang member hunting down rivals kills an innocent kid.

But the courtroom drama that unfolded last month left me unexpectedly troubled.

The child, shot to death a year ago, was a toddler in his father's arms. The gang member who shot him was 15. He'd fired into a pack of strangers because someone had the wrong color on. He was sentenced to 90 years in prison in a courtroom heavy with outrage and grief.

The mother of the dead toddler sobbed through her tribute: "To us, he was perfect," she said.

The killer, Donald Ray Dokins, now 16, slumped and stared at the floor.

The judge pronounced Dokins a hateful coward, "incapable of showing remorse." But Dokins' weeping family and friends offered a gentler rendition of the baby-faced, bespectacled teen. "He's little in size and little inside," Dokins' teacher told the court.

A frightened kid who writes poetry and gets good grades in school. A gangbanger looking for someone to kill, pedaling a bike and packing a gun.

Can two such different boys reside in one teenager's body? Is it possible to punish one of those versions and rehabilitate the other?

::

Fifteen years ago, Ruett and Rhonda Foster were grieving parents in a courtroom. Their 7-year-old son Evan had been shot and killed by a gang member at Inglewood's Darby Park.

Evan was clutching his soccer trophy in the back seat of the family car when bullets aimed at someone else tore through the windshield and struck him in the head.

Three young men were convicted and sent to prison. And the Fosters began performing their own sort of penance, making regular visits to local youth prisons, reaching out to troubled young men.

I joined them on a visit 10 years ago, and it has stayed with me since. They shared the details of Evan's life and the contours of their loss. We listened to young men try to justify the violence in their lives.

"He comes from this 'hood; I come from that 'hood. So he's automatically the enemy," one 16-year-old killer explained. "I didn't understand that he's a person, just like me. You just think, 'I can't wait to put a hit on this fool.' So you get him. Or you get the person he kicks it with."

Or you get a 7-year-old or a toddler, who die in their parents' arms.

What I heard sounded like callousness, indifference, a sense of inevitability that had warped their vision. What the Fosters heard was a cry for help from discarded, disconnected young men.

They are still making those visits, they said, when I visited their Compton home this week. It's draining and often disappointing, but it's what their faith demands.

"The God we serve is a God of second chances," Ruett Foster said. "We don't like the crimes they committed. They're horrific. But at the same time, we've got to help these people turn their lives around."

They see young men like Donald Ray Dokins on every visit. Some are "cold-blooded killers," Ruett admitted. But others are guilty of bad choices, peer pressure, poor judgment, "one stupid moment" they can't take back.

"The atrocity of what happened to our family, that's something I can't change. And I don't feel like we have another choice but to help others find a way."

::

Rhonda Foster remembers the moment she realized that her son was dying. Blood was soaking the front of his Batman shirt and he was suddenly quiet. And she remembers the triggerman swaggering into the courtroom, throwing gang signs.

Has she forgiven him? I asked. She paused for a very long time.

"The young man who took Evan's life? God had to work with me as far as that was concerned. God had to deal with my heart.

"I know we're doing what God wants us to do, but that doesn't mean we don't struggle," she said.

Redemption is their hope, but it isn't really the point.

"Someone has to try to reach them," Ruett said. "We have lived the consequences. We have a story to share."

Last year, at a Ventura County youth correctional facility, that story hit a target.

A young man in the front row couldn't stop crying as Rhonda talked about her son, showed film clips of his funeral, described the man who killed him. The weeping teen had to be escorted out and attended to by a chaplain.

No one knew until that moment, but the gang member who killed Evan Foster was that teenager's father.

The boy was 4 years old at the time. He'd never been told much about the crime and had only known his father behind bars.

His father must have changed, he told Ruett. "He said, 'My dad is really kind. He's always advising me to do right, make something of my life,'" Ruett told me. Instead, the boy had been locked up for purse snatching and other petty crimes.

Ruett hugged the teenager for a long time, as the boy whimpered and sobbed.

Several weeks later, Ruett got an early morning call from a number he didn't recognize. There was no sound at first; just breathing, then crying. "Thank you," a woman finally said, "for giving me back my son."

The impact of Ruett and Rhonda's visit, she said, had been profound. The boy is graduating from high school, and plans to turn his life around. He wants to get to know them. He'd like to volunteer at the church where Ruett is a pastor, he said.

None of that will bring Evan back. And there's no guarantee that this young man won't land behind bars again.

And though it doesn't exactly answer my question, about evil coexisting with good, it does offer a glimmer of hope at the awkward intersection of grief and gratitude.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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