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Out of tragedy came a new kind of family that endures

Four siblings lost their mother but gained a foster father and brother.

December 08, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Defying all odds, they have remained a family.

The four Lee siblings were together again in the rambling West Adams district house they've come to call home. The elder three had come back from college to celebrate the 18th birthday of their youngest sister -- and to celebrate their good fortune at being rescued by total strangers when they were orphaned six years ago.

After their single mother died suddenly, the Lees -- Grace, 12; Emily, 13; and 15-year-old twins Patrick and Shane -- came within hours of being permanently split apart.

No relatives could be found, and family friends were unable to permanently accommodate the suddenly homeless brood. Because older children are difficult to place in foster homes, it seemed certain the four were about to be sent their separate ways.

That's when a campaign to find them a new home was hatched at Fairfax High School.

As a group of students there prepared to plaster Fairfax district telephone poles with "Looking for a Home" posters, writer-producer Gavin Glynn stepped in.

Glynn, who is gay, agreed to take in the Lees. And the orphans bucked the odds once more when county officials agreed to let him serve as foster father for all four.

Things were rocky at first. But now the Lees recognize their good luck.

"We stayed a family. That's the most important thing. We became a strong family," said Shane, now 21 and a junior majoring in communications at San Francisco State. "We used to be individuals. Our dad helped our bond as a family grow."

Patrick, a junior studying cinema at San Francisco State, agreed. So did 19-year-old Emily, who is studying at Los Angeles City College.

"This is a special place," said Grace, the 18-year-old who is scheduled to finish high school in February and enter West Los Angeles College.

The Lees were orphaned in late November 2001 when their mother, Katherine Lee, 46, had a heart attack. Patrick administered CPR following instructions given to him by a 911 operator, but she later died at a hospital.

The siblings spent several days in temporary shelters before being reunited by a friend of their mother who took them into her Westside apartment. After less than two months, the woman's landlord ruled that the children were violating the terms of her lease and gave them a deadline to leave.

For a time, it appeared they might be placed in separate foster homes by Los Angeles County child welfare officials. That's when Patrick and Shane's skateboarding buddies stepped in.

The twins had told their friends about their fears of being split up.

"Maybe Shane and I could stay together and Emily and Grace could stay together," Patrick told them. "We could stay two and two, and be close enough to talk."

A campus counselor, who let the skateboarders store their boards in her office during the school day, heard of the Lees' plight from skateboarder Jason Mendez, then 15.

She took Patrick and Shane aside and quietly inquired about their well-being.

"I asked them if they were OK, if they needed anyone to talk to. They said, 'No, we're fine, we have each other,' " Amanda Jiggins recalled later.

"I was so worried that the second they got into the [county] system they'd be dispersed," she said. "The boys had said it: They had each other."

The boys' friends were preparing the "Looking for a Home" posters when Jiggins called school social workers. One of them knew a private psychotherapist who suggested calling a gay parents support group.

Leaders of that group, the Pop Luck Club, put out an appeal for help. Glynn, one of its members, responded the next day.

Glynn, who produces and writes for television, was in the process of adopting a 7-year-old boy, Iby, so he had already been certified as a foster parent. He volunteered to immediately take the Lees in.

The first few months were difficult. Glynn quit his job with a local studio to devote himself full time to being a father.

Adjustment was tough for the siblings, who at first chafed at his close supervision.

Glynn, in turn, felt pressured by the close scrutiny imposed by county Department of Children and Family Services caseworkers and adoption agency social workers.

Pop Luck Club members and others who heard about the Lees' situation helped Glynn by donating food, clothing and gift certificates. Desks, a freezer and a large kitchen table were also donated, along with a used Chevrolet Suburban large enough to carry the whole family. Glynn's new acquaintances also helped locate Katherine Lee's cremated remains, which had been stored under a combination of her married and maiden names, and paid the county's $500 cremation fee.

In September 2002 -- eight months after Glynn took the Lees in -- he organized a memorial service for their mother.

Fairfax High skateboarders Mendez and Alex Kapstan sat next to Patrick and Shane. The service was attended by many of those who had stepped forward to assist the youths.

The memorial service was a turning point, said Glynn, now 46.

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