Family Matters

After the Storms, What Happens to the Tornadoes’ Orphans?

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Five-year-old Garrett LeClere and his foster father Jeff McCormick are pictured in Phil Campbell, Alabama, May 24, 2011. McCormick was once married to Garrett's mother and took the boy in after both of his parents were killed in the tornadoes.

Alongside the terrible physical devastation that tornadoes have wrought in communities throughout the South and Midwest this spring lies an even deeper human tragedy: in some circumstances, a single parent — or both — has died, leaving a handful of children orphaned.

In Alabama alone, at least eight kids lost their parents, according to a Reuters review of obituaries. Garrett LeClere, 5, survived with broken arms and a fractured skull after his parents stuffed the boy and his 13-year-old sister in the bathtub of their Phil Campbell, Ala., home to help shield them from the storm. The tub swirled through the sky before landing with a thud 200 yards from their home, which was destroyed. The bodies of the parents were later found buried by the rubble.

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Three sisters also lost their parents. Now the oldest, who is 21 and in college, has become the default caregiver; she intends to take care of her 14- and 18-year-old sisters.

According to Reuters:

Young disaster survivors often gain compassion and a higher level of moral development, said Andy McNiel, executive director of the Children’s Hospital’s Amelia Center in Birmingham, which specializes in trauma counseling.

But they are at a high risk for drug abuse, promiscuity and mental illness down the road if they do not properly work through their grief, McNiel said.

“Children are keen observers but poor interpreters, and there is no snake oil to take away grief,” he said.

Guilt is common, though some children do not quickly express their feelings.

Young Garrett LeClere does. “I feel sorry for my parents,” he said. “They wasted their lives saving me.”

Yet Garrett’s story has as happy an ending as could be hoped for in such a situation. Rather than being shuttled off to foster care, he’s already found a new home.

A volunteer fireman who happens to be the father of Garrett’s two half siblings responded to the disaster at Garrett’s house, searching for his daughter, his ex-wife, who was Garrett’s mother, and her husband.

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The fireman, Jeff McCormick, is now legal guardian of Garrett, his ex-wife’s son with another man. He and his wife will raise Garrett.