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Boy in accident dies a motherless child

Thanks to the consent of the grandmother who raised him, the 7-year-old's organs will enrich other children's lives.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2001


Thanks to the consent of the grandmother who raised him, the 7-year-old's organs will enrich other children's lives.

HUDSON -- Justen Sobjack's mom never paid him much attention.

Teracq Sobjack didn't see Justen take his first step, was not around when he started kindergarten and never sat next to him when he watched one of his favorite movies, Bambi.

She didn't hold 7-year-old Justen after he was flown to All Children's Hospital last Tuesday after being seriously injured in an auto accident, and she was not at his bedside when he died the next day.

She could not be located when doctors wanted to give Justen's organs to other children.

And, unless she turns up in the next few days, she won't mourn for him Thursday at the memorial service in St. Martin's Episcopal Church. Neither will Justen's dad. He abandoned his son shortly after his birth.

Justen was raised by his maternal grandmother, Laura Taylor. By all accounts, Taylor did a good job.

"He had a very caring and loving adult in his corner," said Mary Wallace-Sandvik, Taylor's boss at a social service agency. "He was her light."

Justen was an above-average first-grader at Hudson Elementary, a good reader. He built Lego towers with a special needs boy with whom no other kids would play.

"He was a really neat kid," said Sandra Jay, the director of Justen's school-based day care. "He was quiet. The other kids miss him quite a bit."

'Not mother material'

Justen was born June 2, 1993, in Detroit. His mother was 20. His father, Robert C. Weiss, saw him once, right after he was born, Taylor said.

When Justen was about 6 months old, Sobjack moved to Colorado to live with her mother, Laura Taylor. In 1994, they all moved to Pasco County to be closer to Taylor's parents.

Sobjack moved out of the house in 1996, Taylor said. At about that time, Sobjack signed over her parental rights to Taylor.

"Tera was not mother material," said Taylor, shaking her head.

Taylor, who is divorced, graduated from college in 1996 at age 44 and eventually got a job as a "resource mom" with Healthy Families, a program run by the non-profit Pasco County Family Protection Team. She teaches parenting skills to families in need.

At home, she focused those skills on Justen.

With the help of her adult son, Scott Sobjack, and her parents, Taylor encouraged the boy's love of animals, rocks and sea creatures. The family encouraged him to learn, and he would often read Taylor bedtime stories.

"The little guy, there was just something about him," said Scott Sobjack, who is 25. "He'd look at you, and you would be like, "awwww.' "

Justen sometimes called Scott Sobjack "dad."

The family occasionally went to church, and Justen was the one who said grace at the dinner table and said a prayer at bedtime.

Now I lay me down to sleep

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Tera Sobjack had two more children, now 8 months and 21/2 years old. She was dismissive of them, said Taylor, although Sobjack took them with her wherever she went.

"She had no relationship with Justen," said Taylor, nor did she support him financially -- Sobjack had her driver's license suspended last month for non-payment of child support.

Justen called Taylor "Mom." On occasion, he also called Taylor's mother -- his great-grandmother -- "Mom." He called his real mom Tera.

"Tera was Tera to him, and not mommy," Taylor said. "Everybody was mom but her."

The last time Justen saw his mother was two months ago, when she was finishing up a nearly six-month stay with Taylor in Hudson. It was Sobjack's final appearance in Justin's life, where she had been a sporadic presence for five years.

Eight weeks ago, Taylor said, she threatened to call the Department of Children and Families on her daughter because of the way she was treating all three of her kids. Shortly thereafter, her daughter left again, taking the other two children with her.

She didn't say goodbye to Justen.

Justen's great-grandmother, Eunice Lorenger, said that after Tera Sobjack and his two half-siblings left, Justen said only one thing:

"I'm not going to see them again."

Fatal crash

Last Tuesday, Taylor got up at her usual time of about 5:30 a.m.

Justin woke about 15 minutes later and put on his jeans and grey New York Jets shirt. At 6:30, they climbed into her 1994 Oldsmobile and set off for Hudson Elementary, where he was in a before-school program.

Justen was in the passenger seat with his seat belt on, and they talked a little about what he was doing at school that day.

Taylor was in the northbound turn lane on Little Road and tried to turn left onto Hudson Avenue, when the accident happened.

A Dodge truck in the southbound left turn lane hit Taylor's car on the passenger side. Taylor said the truck's driver had his turn signal on but drove forward instead. The Florida Highway Patrol said Taylor was at fault in the crash and cited her for violation of right of way. Taylor said she is appealing the citation.

She suffered bruises and scrapes, but Justen suffered severe internal injuries. He was unconscious when he was flown to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Doctors pronounced him brain dead at 11:30 Wednesday morning.

Taylor wanted to donate Justen's organs. But because her guardianship ended if Justen died, the hospital had to try to find Tera Sobjack to obtain permission to harvest his organs.

The organ donation organization, Life Links, hired a private investigator, who failed to find her. At that point, the hospital allowed Taylor to make the decision.

Justen's heart valves and corneas were donated to other children.

"Two children will have sight and two children will have heart valves," Taylor said. "So some good came out of it."

Taylor, who is 49, has stopped looking for her daughter.

"I honestly don't think she would really care," she said. "I feel really sorry for her. She missed out on a wonderful little boy."

-- Tamara Lush is the police reporter in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6245.

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