Judge sentences Eagar couple to probation for child abuse
LeFevres treated adopted children differently than biological children, judge says
By: Judy Hayes
An Eagar couple each facing 15 counts of felony child abuse were sentenced last week to three years probation in a negotiated plea agreement with prosecutors.
The couple could have been ordered to spend up to a year in jail. Child Protective Services removed their six underage children from their home last fall.
Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Roca sentenced Tamara and Jeffrey LeFevre last Tuesday by. In the agreement, Jeff LeFevre pled guilty to two Class 6 open-ended child abuse charges for "striking (an adopted 17-year-old son) on the back, buttocks and/or legs with a belt, wooden spoon and/or spatula."
Tamara LeFevre pled guilty to two Class 6 open-ended child abuse charges for making the 17-year-old live outside without adequate water and toilet facilities and "striking victim on the back, buttocks and/or legs with a belt, wooden spoon and/or spatula."
Court documents indicate the couple forced the 17-year-old adopted son to live in a tent outside the home for about two weeks where he used a hose for drinking water and showering, washed his clothes in a bucket and dug holes for his waste. He was not allowed back inside the home or to have any communication with his siblings.
The two-hour sentencing hearing began with County Prosecutor Brad Carlyon calling pediatrician Dr. Edith Bailey to testify by telephone. Bailey said she performed physical examinations on five of the six children while they resided in a foster home. When asked if she remembered finding anything unusual during her examinations of the children, Bailey said one of the adopted female children was well below the average weight for a child her age.
"That is a pattern you see with poor nutrition, poor eating habits, anorexia, among other things," Bailey said.
Bailey noted that during a follow-up examination of the girl, she was glad to see the child had gained several pounds, but she still remained well under the normal weight for her age.
Bailey said she also found a series of six scars on the back of one of the adopted teenage boys and two on his front. She said most of the scars, ranging in size from 1/4-inch to 1-3/4 inches in size, appeared to be fully healed. She was unable to determine how long the boy had the markings. While she couldn't tell for sure how the scars occurred, she indicated they were straight lines and could be consistent with marks left by a belt or other straight edge device. She said she didn't remember finding scaring on any of the other children.
Bailey found another adopted daughter was in the 30th percentile for a girl her age, and the couple's natural daughter was in the 90th percentile for a girl her age.
Defense attorney Robert Hitchcock, who represented both LeFevre parents, called oldest LeFevre son Dylan, 27, to the stand. Dylan recalled when he was growing up in the home his parents disciplined him by grounding him and spanking him on the rear end, and while he said that no child enjoys "correction," he does not feel he was abused.
Daughter Hannah LeFevre, 20, told the court she still lives in the family home and has several jobs including teaching violin lessons and cleaning houses. She recalled that while growing up her parents disciplined her by spanking or giving her timeouts, but she remembers the discipline as being appropriate to the infraction.
Doctor Edward Flake said he has met the LeFevre family on several occasions when he treated some of the children for foot-related problems. He said he was not aware of how the parents raised their family in the home, but when they visited his office, he found the children to be polite and disciplined.
Pastor Luke Gallagher from the Life in Christ Fellowship in Eagar said he has known Tamara and Jeffrey LeFevre for more 20 years. He said he and his wife have spent many hours with the family as a whole and have also spent time alone with the children. He said the LeFevres were open with him about their parenting techniques and he was aware their children were on occasion disciplined using "appropriate" corporal punishment.
He said that using a belt to discipline children in certain situations was appropriate but leaving scars was not appropriate. In that case, "I think you've gone too far," he noted.
He said he was aware of a situation the LeFevres had with their 17-year-old son whom they forced to live outside. "I don't see a problem with that for a young man that knows how to (camp)," Gallagher said.
Arianna Howe said she has often been in the LeFevre home, both as a friend of their two oldest children and more recently as a piano instructor and helping with projects in the home. While in the home, she said she witnessed the parents giving children timeouts that sometimes lasted up to a week.
When given an opportunity to address the court, Jeff LeFevre said he loves his children with all his heart. "This has been a very difficult ordeal for us. I truly am sorry for when I have hurt my children, and I felt that way any time that I felt that things had gone too far, that I'd been too harsh."
He "wronged his children" many times, he said, but he acknowledged his mistakes, had been humbled by them and apologized to the children and asked their forgiveness. He asked Judge Roca to "put this family back together. All these children want to come home."
Through her tears, Tamara LeFevre also said she loves her children very much. "I have made many, many mistakes. There's not a day, even before this all happened, that goes by that I'm not grieved over how I've hurt my children, caused them pain, been too harsh with them, spanked them too much."
She said she was sorry for the grief this situation has caused the "good people that helped us."
She said making her son live outside "was never to punish him, it was only out of concern for the other children. He was older, he was almost an adult, and the things that he was just playing, we were concerned that he was going to harm one of the other children. It was not a long-term situation. It was only temporary until we could find ... an answer."
In summarizing his case, Prosecutor Carlyon said the problem wasn't that the LeFevres don't love their children, "but the way they have chosen to discipline their children is wrong and potentially very harmful. And what really concerns the state is, I don't know if they really get it. I'm not sure if they really understand the wrongness of their conduct."
Carlyon said he believes Jeff LeFevre has taken a step in the right direction by admitting during a psychological interview that he has on occasion been too physical with the children, but he believes Tamara denied the corporal punishment used in the home was abusive.
"She talks about the situation itself being embarrassing, humiliating and devastating. Her response to the children's allegations of what she and Jeff did against them, she talks about the kids having a tendency to blow things out of proportion. So I'm not sure she feels she did wrong, if anything. From what she's talked about, it sounds like she doesn't feel she's done anything wrong."
Carlyon noted Tamara is grieved, "but it sounds more about grieved over how she's perceived than grieved over what's happened to the kids. And (from) neither one did I hear talk about apologizing to the kids for their actions.
"Neither one mentioned the harm their actions did to the children. And I'm concerned that's going to be hard for them to change."
The prosecutor read excerpts from more than 25 letters of support received by the court. "Typically I would discount a lot of what people say about them, about role models for parenting, because often times in these cases the people really don't know what goes on in the household. In this case, I'm afraid they do, and they condone it. The confusion this must cause the children is just staggering to me."
Carlyon discussed comments the children made to authorities. "All the kids were consistent in their statements to Child Protective Services, Matrese Avila with law enforcement, the psychologist, Guardian ad Litem (child advocacy program), etc., when they talked about the corporal punishment, when they talked about being hit with a belt and other items, they all talk about being hit on the back and on the legs."
He said the last time one of the teenage boys got hit with a belt was because he teased his siblings. He got 20 whacks. A daughter said the last time she got punished with a belt was because she did poorly on her schoolwork. The last time another teenage son got beat with a belt was because he argued with his siblings.
Carlyon said all six children were consistent regarding the circumstances for "timeout." "When they're in timeout, they're not allowed to eat with the family, they're not allowed to interact with the other family members, they're not allowed to do schoolwork, and they all six said this could last up to a month."
He said the children told authorities timeouts were for when they teased, lied or didn't do their schoolwork, chores or put their things away.
Carlyon asked the judge to give the couple a "correction" similar to what they gave their children. "Put them in isolation, put them each in jail for a week. I think that is just in this situation. And maybe that'll help them get it, because I don't think they do."
Defense Attorney Hitchcock said he believes his clients are "thoughtful rational people who are trying to make good decisions with respect to parenting. I think it's pretty obvious they take their duties seriously."
He believes the LeFevres showed a lot of courage when they adopted five foster children, some with special needs, and brought them into their home.
"The reason we're here is it just wasn't a swat on the butt. There were swats on the legs, on the back, there were red spots, there might have been bruising," Hitchcock said.
Although two of the boys have scarring, he said, his clients do not believe they ever left any scars on the children. Hitchcock asked the judge to let the couple rely on the support they have in the community and their counselor to help them change. He asked for probation with no jail time for his clients.
Judge Michael Roca said, "I have no doubt that if the children come back into your home that they will never again speak out, whether or not they should. I have no doubt that you both fervently and dearly love the children that have been in your home and equally love your adopted and biological children. The facts are nonetheless apparent to me that you've treated them somewhat differently. The results are radically different. The children who were taken from your home are not likely to be as confident in dealing with the world, in making entirely laudable choices that you have yourself, as your oldest two children have."
Roca said calling their methods "home-schooling" is, "bluntly put, an insult to the parents who have taken it seriously, studied the process of education and undertaken to actively teach their children. It's carelessly close to an insult to individuals who have been teachers as well."
Roca said he feels the couple understands the need for change, but "I think that you're getting some dangerously inaccurate feedback from those surrounding you who suggest that there really isn't a problem because, yes, there really is a problem. Yes, there really, really is a problem."
Roca sentenced the couple to three years of probation with counseling as directed by the Adult Probation Department. Other conditions include abiding to curfews set by the probation department, performing community service and having no contact with the six children who will continue to live in foster care for one year without Child Protective Services supervision.
"That's not punishment, that's not rehabilitation, that's an opportunity for those children to decompress, to form their own egos," Roca said.