Foster family has provided home, love, support to more than 80 children
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - While she was growing up as one of seven children, Mary Lefebvre said she and a sister always wanted their mother to take in babies to care for. After the birth of her second child, Mary's childhood wish came true.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Happy again. Leah Lefebvre, second from left, smiles, surrounded by family and friend, Lizzie the dog.
Mary and her husband, Larry, began caring for infants awaiting adoption through The Light House program. The required training and licensing took a year. The Lefebvres provided temporary foster care for babies for about three years.
One night the couple saw a segment of Thursday's Child, the onetime WDAF-TV 4 news showcase for children in the state adoption system. They felt it was a call from God.
That was 12 years ago. Since then, the St. Thomas More parishioners have cared for over 80 foster children of various ages. Placement requests come from Catholic Charities and the Missouri Division of Family Services. Some children have stayed only a few days, others for almost two years. The Lefebvres have adopted, Leah, one of those children.
There are four main levels of foster care: traditional, behavioral, career, and residential. The Lefebvres have completed the training and are licensed career foster parents who care for children with emotional or behavioral problems. One of the most common behavioral disorder is Reactive Attachment Disorder.
According to Nancy Thomas, a therapeutic parenting specialist in Evergreen, Colo., attachment disorders typically stem from a disruption or trauma in the early parent-child relationship. This could be parental abandonment, abuse, neglect or sexual trauma, emotional immaturity in the primary caregiver, or even the birth or adoption of a younger sibling. Lefebvre said the developmental and behavioral challenges arising from this "unbonding" can be overwhelming for the child and the family, especially if parenting skills are lacking. She said there is a great need for foster families to care for older kids who are neglected, sexually abused or emotionally unbonded.
When the Lefebvres realized this need, Mary said, they decided to work with those children, and prepare them for adoption.
It takes time for a child with attachment disorder to begin to trust a foster parent.
"You have to teach them that they can trust, and allow someone else besides themselves to be in control," Mary said. The children have to be taught what it is like to be a child, she said, and it's a 24-hour job.
Often the state moves too quickly to get children adopted, not allowing them time to build trust. Then the adoption process gets disrupted, and the child is back in the system, she said.
"And there are so many in the system," Mary said.
There is a long waiting list of special-needs children in need of adoptive families, she said. In Missouri, a child must spend 15 months out of 22 month time period in foster care before the state will initiate proceedings to terminate parental rights.
Even if an older child is adoptable, at the age of 13, the state allows the child to decide whether he or she wants to be adopted or not. If a child refuses adoption, he or she stays in the foster care system until age 16, Mary said. There are a few independent living programs, but sometimes the children are on their own, she said.
When the Lefebvres began caring for older children with behavior problems stemming from attachment disorders, their lives quickly became different and difficult, she said. Their two biological daughters also felt the impact.
Since children with attachment disorder may hurt other children or pets in order to gain control, or exhibit other types of overt behaviors, such as "one-up-manship" and extreme competitiveness, they must be monitored carefully. The Lefebvres' younger daughter, Cara, now 15 and a student at Notre Dame de Sion High School, had to be moved into her own bedroom.
Mary said that kids with attachment disorder or sexual abuse issues never learn how to behave well in public. As foster parents, the Lefebvres had to learn how to manage acting out, starting fires, kicking holes in walls and other unacceptable behaviors in a gentle but consistently strict manner.
The Lefebvres have a rule: "The child has to be respectful, responsible, and fun to be with for three weeks before he or she earns a privilege."
Such consistency not only changes behavior over time, but builds trust, Mary said.
"Society doesn't really want to believe that children behave like that," she said. So it can be difficult for foster parents to get help and support. Mary said there are several support systems in Missouri, especially the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, co-founded by foster parent Lori Ross.
Ross, of Blue Springs, has 12 biological and adopted children and has cared for more than 200 foster children in 16 years. She has spoken on behalf of special needs adoptions several times, most recently in connection with the Bishop Sullivan Center middle school program, "That's not fair," for which over 500 sixth to eighth graders lobbied before the state legislature for funding for adoption awareness.
Mary said the association provides resources for foster parent education and training, a food pantry, furniture exchange and clothes closet for foster families.
The Lefebvres have cared for about 80 children in the last 12 years. The more difficult children stay in foster care longer, and foster parents may become emotionally involved with the children.
Leah, the Lefebvres' adopted daughter, is 11 years old. She was in the foster care system for several years, and exhibited classic symptoms of attachment disorder. The Lefebvres had worked with her for over 18 months, and believed last spring she was ready to move on and be adopted. But the adoptive family and Leah were unable to make it work, and Leah ended up back in the foster care system. When Mary found out, she and Larry quickly took Leah back into their home. After six months, they applied for adoption.
Leah celebrated Christmas 2001 as a member of the Lefebvre family.
She is a fourth grader at a nearby elementary school and is making friends. She still has to be monitored closely, because she has good days and bad days. She accepts the monitoring with good grace, at least in front of one recent visitor.
She told The Key she feels real happy now, because before she didn't have anyone she could forever call mom or dad.
"I'm getting a lot more love, and mom rocks me when I need it," she said. The physical contact is important, Mary said, in continuing to build trust and emotional health.
Daughter Cara said she enjoys being a big sister, and having someone look up to her as a role model.
During the Easter Vigil services at St. Thomas More Church, Leah was baptised and received her first communion and confirmation. She said she was excited about being baptised and about her white baptismal candle, standing in place of honor on the fireplace mantle. She snuggled up to Mary while she talked, and hugged Lizzie the dog.
Leah said she wants to be a foster mother when she grows up, "so I can adopt a little girl just like me."
"Bedtime, Leah," Mary said, smiling, and the two walked to Leah's room for goodnight prayers.