'I'm Fighting,' Dad of 3 Special Needs Kids Says
Since losing his wife in 2010, a Parsippany father has struggled to give his children what they need and now faces what may be his toughest fight.
A Lake Parsippany family that includes three special needs children needs a miracle.
Richard L'Ecuyer, 49, adopted the children more than a decade ago with his wife Pamela, who was a nurse. The situation was ever-challenging for the pair, he told Patch. Pamela would work taking care of geriatric patients until early in the morning, and he would leave for work when she came home. When not on the job, each would focus on the children.
With love, patience and hard work, L'Ecuyer said he and his wife were able to deal with the physical and emotional difficulties and to get their kids what they needed in terms of their health and education.
Their commitment to the children they adopted through the state Department of Children and Families did not go unnoticed. Pamela and Richard L'Ecuyer were presented with three state awards commending them for a job well done.
Then came February 2010, when Pamela died suddenly.
"It was the worst thing I could imagine," L'Ecuyer said. "But I had to go on for the kids's sake. Now I am a single dad. It's rewarding, and they are great kids. But this is is so tough."
L'Ecuyer appears terribly proud of his children.
David, the oldest, is 17, severely autistic. While he does attend a special-education school, the Regional Day School in Morris Township, according to his father, the boy remains unable to communicate beyond clapping his hands and making unintelligible sounds.
L'Ecuyer said that when they met David as a 6-year-old, he was in a bad state.
"When we found him, he had been sexually abused, he had bad teeth and he'd been kept in a bed with aluminum bars and a top," he recalled. "He was violent, just kept in a cage and abused constantly."
When the boy first joined the family, he spent the first five months screaming and refusing to walk.
"Finally, he settled down, and we fell in love with him," L'Ecuyer said. "I had to be stern, or otherwise he would be in an institution. We finally got him to the point where he loves to walk, so that's good. We're still working on teaching him to feed himself. He uses a sippy cup to drink, and that's a miracle.
"David listens to me, he realizes I'm in charge. He sometimes pushes people, but he's affectionate and loving. There isn't a mean bone in his body."
Tiffany, 14, was born with microcephaly, a genetic brain disorder that often shortens life expectancy.
"She's daddy's little girl, the epitome," L'Ecuyer said. "When we adopted Tiffany, the experts said she would never learn sign language. But she did, and she's walking and very smart and tough."
Tiffany attends the P.G. Chambers School, an institution for special-needs students on Ridgedale Avenue in Cedar Knolls.
"She was the biggest challenge, even with school," L'Ecuyer told Patch. "She learned to use sign language before she could talk. This is a girl who they said would never live beyond the age of five. We turned it around, we made her speak. Now she gets around, feeds herself. And while she is potty trained during the day, she wears diapers at night. It was a very long process."
"Now you can understand a lot of what she says," said Gisele L'Ecuyer, who called herself "a proud grandma."
"They're wonderful," she said. "I'm so used to being around them. They're lovable—I just love 'em, no matter what. When I first came here, Tiffany didn't know how to set the table, so I'm teaching her. Now at night, she'll help set the table."
Joseph, also known as J.J., is 11 years old and about to start sixth grade at Brooklawn Middle School. He was born to a drug-addicted mother and also suffers from Type 1 diabetes, which brings its own challenges.
"He has to take four or five shots a day, check his blood several times daily," said his dad. "But he's the charm. He's a happy kid and he's really helpful to his brother and sister."
After his wife passed away, L'Ecuyer quit his job in painting and construction to focus on his children, using a monthly $994 from his own Social Security and pension benefits along with state stipends for the kids to support the family, which also includes his mother, Gisele.
Additional help with the kids comes from a babysitter who visits two days each week.
L'Ecuyer won't talk about his wife's death, but it is apparent that he still is a grieving spouse. And he said the difficulties in meeting his children's medical and educational needs, particularly David's, keep him awake at night.
On top of the kids' issues, his own health isn't the best, he said.
"I have diabetes and I will lose my Cobra insurance in February," he said, adding that he cannot afford a new policy for himself. "What happens to these kids if something happens to me?"
In fact, L'Ecuyer has special needs trust funds set up for the kids and alternative arrangements are in place so that the children can be taken care of in the event they lose their remaining parent. However, he said trust funds can't help with the family's most immediate difficulties.
"More than anything, it's the situation with David," he continued. "He turns 18 [Aug. 13] and becomes legally an adult. He isn't ready for that and he still needs the benefits that he gets from being under 18. I'm trying to get legal guardianship, but everywhere doors slam in my face and I can't afford the legal bills to do it."
L'Ecuyer said that if he can't get guardianship, David will have to go into a group home, which he said would cost the state $4,000-$5,000 per month.
"Tell me how that makes sense," his father argued. "This is all still a work in progress for David. He's still trying to feed himself. He'll pick up a spoon, but it's hard for him. He's never going to amount to anything more than what he is, but from where he was, it's fine with me.
"I just want him happy and well."
And he doesn't see how consigning his son to a group home—at a cost of thousands of dollars to the state—would help him.
"Tell me how that makes sense," he said angrily. "Give me guardianship of my son and I can save the state that money. We've already saved the state millions. David and Tiffany were considered unadoptable and on their way to an institution, which would cost at least $200,000 a year each, [not including the cost of health insurance]. An institution is where those kids would be, if not for the L'Ecuyers."
L'Ecuyer shook his head and admitted that he is finding the situation emotionally overwhelming.
"Here I am, an honest Joe," he said. "And I'm in trouble. I have nothing. I mean, I own my car. I own my own house free and clear, but only because I stupidly paid the whole thing off early.
"So I'm in a fight for my life," he said, talking specifically about his insurance situation, "along with a fight for my kids' lives."
This is not the situation in which L'Ecuyer expected to find himself.
In addition to the three state Department of Youth and Family awards the L'Ecuyers won, the family found themselves celebrated in numerous New Jersey newspapers for "adopting the unadoptable."
And when he needed assistance, sometimes it appeared.
L'Ecuyer said that in one instance, when David was little, there was difficulty getting the proper medical bed for him. After encountering red tape, he turned to Gov. Chris Christie. In time, his office helped the family get the bed David required.
"The governor and [Office of Constituent Relations Director] Jean Ashmore have taken so much of their personal time to help our family over the past two years," he said. "I commend them highly, in spite of everything, for what they have done for me and my family. These people honestly took their own time to help, and that was beautiful. I sent them letters of thank you from the bottom of my heart with my kids. They have been the biggest advocates for me."
A spokesperson from the governor's office told Patch that the staff gave the family a helping hand just as they would do for any family in need.
But now, according to L'Ecuyer, help seems in short supply or nonexistent.
"I've called my lawyer, insurance companies, the state—who's been great; I'm so appreciative—but I've heard nothing since July 17," he said. "David turns 18 on Aug. 13 and I have to get guardianship. He can't take care of himself. Someone's got to see that."
Additionally, he's been hit with a more than $2,000 bill he wasn't expecting from his accountant of 10 years, who did not respond to Patch's request for comment.
L'Ecuyer's eyes welled up and he made a visible effort to stop tears from falling.
"I'm fighting," he said, struggling through sobs to get the words out. "Sometimes I get to the point where I don't know whether I'm coming or going. But if I were in this to make money, the kids would be in a group home.
"I haven't worked in two years. I had to give up everything, including a property I owned in Pennsylvania, in order to qualify for the sake of the kids, so we were eligible for benefits from the federal government. I'm doing everything for my kids, but it's so hard and so sad."
L'Ecuyer said he is making plans to sell the family's tiny Lake Parsippany home, which costs him $8,000 per year in taxes, just in case.
"With David turning 18, what else am I going to do?" he asked. "After all I've done for the state and the federal government, what am I going to do?"
His immediate answer is to continue fighting.
"These are my kids, and it's my responsibility to do what's right for them," L'Ecuyer said, wiping away tears.
"I will not stop."