DI family opens their hearts and home to foster parenting
It’s a few weeks before Christmas - and life in the Leeke home on Daniel Island is festively busy.
Eighteen-month old Eleanor is expressing her dissatisfaction with applesauce and being confined to her high chair, so her Mom, Cathy, sets the toddler free to explore the kitchen area. Brother Grayson, 6, is focused on an activity on an iPad at the table, while big sister Meredith, 7, politely asks to begin a stamping project. Dad, Jonathon, is preparing fresh spinach for dinner, along with macaroni and cheese. He and Cathy move about effortlessly, tag teaming duties to keep everything running smoothly. It is the steady hum of noise and moving parts associated with an engaged and active young family.
But there is one more member of the Leeke clan to add to the mix. And he is very much a part of the family’s daily happenings. Michael* may not be one of Cathy and Jonathon’s biological children, but they give him the same attention and love they give their other kids. He is a foster child, placed with them through Lifeline Children’s Services of South Carolina last August. Michael, who is a few months younger than Eleanor, is at daycare on this particular afternoon, but the family has plans to pick up him soon while on the way to a church event.
“He was an emergency placement,” said Cathy, when discussing Michael’s arrival at the Leeke homestead in August of 2016. “He came to us with a ‘Can you take him now?’ (plea). We didn’t know if he was born in a hospital or if he had been immunized. We didn’t know his medical records, what he eats or what size diapers he wears. We didn’t know anything about him.”
All they knew was that Michael needed a safe place to call home. And they didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“Being a foster parent, it’s like every day could be the delivery day,” added Cathy. “You could be ‘giving birth’ and getting a call that will change your day.”
But the Leekes were well prepared for the challenge. They first attended an information session about foster parenting in December of 2014, after considering adding another child to their family (a similar class will be held on Daniel Island this month - see sidebar). At the time, they were thinking about an international adoption. They began discussing the idea with Lifeline, a Christian non-profit organization that specializes in adoption, foster care and orphan care.
“We were talking to Lifeline about different countries and wanted to make the biggest impact we could, so we were asking about where the greatest needs were,” Cathy recalled. “So having the support of them here, it really clicked for us. We just felt called to (foster care), because we were able to serve kids right here in our local area. The need was just overwhelming.”
According to Lifeline’s South Carolina State Director Brett Chapman, there are more than 4,000 kids in foster care in South Carolina and a need for 1555 more homes. In Charleston County alone, there are about 292 children currently in foster care and only 140 foster families - exposing a need for an additional 152 homes.
“The need for licensed foster families is apparent in the disparate numbers of children needing placement and the number of families available to care for them,” stated Chapman. “The lack of equipped and supported homes results in children being placed in overcrowded homes or in institutions where their unique needs cannot be met with excellence.”
Compounding the problem, continued Chapman, is the fact that about one third of the children that are reunited with their birth families re-enter the foster care system due to the birth families not being adequately prepared or supported to take them back.
“This creates a cycle in which children and families are left without hope,” he added.
Enter Lifeline Children’s Services, a resource and support to the Department of Social Services (DSS) that seeks to infuse a faith-based message into the foster care system.
“We believe that every child placement is a unique opportunity to minister to the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of that child,” said Chapman. “And in many cases, his (or her) birth family. Lifeline believes that a child’s needs are best met under the guidance of Christian foster parents who can ensure the safety, well-being and development of a children during a time of great uncertainty.”
It is a mission that clearly resonated with Jonathon and Cathy Leeke and prompted them to sign on as foster parents.
“We really need an advocate and a partner that can kind of buffer some of this stuff, especially because Jonathon and I did not come from foster families,” said Cathy. “We did not come from adoptive families. We knew nothing about this. It was really important for us that we felt like we had an advocate, a partner, and advisor that, for us, had the same belief system that we do…When you have a difficult situation, they are right there to help.”
Cathy and Jonathon initially signed on to serve as a “respite family” for Lifeline, which meant they would help out another foster family when they needed temporary care for their foster child or children.
“That’s how we wanted to start,” explained Jonathon. “Just to test out the waters a bit.” “For our first assignment, we had four respite children,” added Cathy. “The other reason we wanted to do respite care is we found out I was pregnant with Eleanor the day we started foster parenting classes!”
About six months after Eleanor was born, they signed on as a full-time foster family.
“Whether these children are products of neglect or abuse, they’re in highly vulnerable situations,” said Cathy. “They are low resource families and that’s not just monetary resources, that’s relational resources, spiritual resources, educational resources…. and it gives them stability to be in foster care.”
The Leeke’s first child placement was an eight year-old girl who had stayed with the family before for respite care. She arrived February of 2016 and stayed for about five months.
“Once a child in your care goes home, the goal is to reunite them with their parents,” said Cathy. “It’s only a matter of days before you get another call. That’s how fast it happens.”
Within a couple of months, Michael arrived and has been with the family ever since. According to Cathy, both of the full-time foster children they have taken in have had regular visits with their biological parents. All have worked hard throughout the process, she said, and have expressed love for their children and regret for their mistakes.
“The state has to balance giving the biological parents enough time to do whatever it is they need to do to get to the place where they can have their child back,” said Cathy. “The parents need time. This is not a quick fix. It’s usually pretty complex.”
To help things go smoothly and ease the burden on foster families, Lifeline also provides “wraparound” services to offer additional support when needed. For the Leekes, the benefits of fostering far outweigh any extra work an additional child may bring to the family.
“I will tell you for me, it’s a very easy decision,” said Cathy. “…We come prepared to advocate on their behalf…Are we going to grieve (Michael’s) loss when he leaves? Absolutely. The alternative to that - him never having experienced the love of a family - is not acceptable to me.”
On December 25, Michael celebrated his first Christmas with the Leekes and his first birthday on December 30. They expect his biological parent may be ready to take him home within a few months. For now, they are relishing the chance to have him as part of their family.
“It’s about investing in a child that is coming from a hard place,” said Jonathon.
“The best part about foster care has been the fact that you get this huge bonus of not only investing in a child and having a true life significance for a child - but it will have a generational impact on their children to come,” added Cathy. “…And our (biological) kids are being impacted by this. They are getting to know what it is to share and know what it is to care for their community. That level of generosity is just normal…I think for me, it gives great significance to our parenting.”
*The name of the foster child was changed to protect his identity
Want to learn more about becoming a foster parent?
Lifeline Foster Care Training Class
Church of the Holy Cross on Daniel Island
299 Seven Farms Drive
January 31, 2017 • 6:30 to 8 p.m.
This session is an orientation for the Lifeline Foster Care Training Class, which will be held on Tuesdays, February 21 - April 18, at Church of the Holy Cross. Attending registration is required to participate in the classes. Lifeline currently has 18 families licensed to provide foster care in South Carolina - 11 are providing full-time foster care and seven are providing respite care. The organization estimates that they have served approximately 42 children over the last two years but more foster families are needed. To register, or for more information, contact Laura Deboer at firstname.lastname@example.org.