Looking for love — and a family — at the mall

From left, Andrew Forbes and Ellen Leffingwell of Norwich describe how they initially volunteered to photograph children available for adoption, and then ended up adopting twins, as the Connecticut Department of Children and Families opens the Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, Conn., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Looking on is social worker Jacqueline Ford, right, Heart Gallery coordinator, DCF foster care and adoption recruitment specialist. (Tim Martin/The Day)
From left, Andrew Forbes and Ellen Leffingwell of Norwich describe how they initially volunteered to photograph children available for adoption, and then ended up adopting twins, as the Connecticut Department of Children and Families opens the Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, at the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, Conn., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Looking on is social worker Jacqueline Ford, right, Heart Gallery coordinator, DCF foster care and adoption recruitment specialist. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Milford — Ellen Leffingwell and Andrew Forbes went to the Waterford Public Library nine years ago and fell in love.

The Norwich couple's love story, told to reporters at the Connecticut Post Mall on Valentine's Day, has nothing to do with their own romance. They had been married for years when, Leffingwell said, "sparks flew" at the library on a rainy day in 2009.

It was there that they met a set of 9½-year-old twins, a boy and a girl who had been in foster care, and began a family.

"We chose them," said the wife.

"They chose us," added the husband.

"We found each other," they agreed.

Leffingwell, who works in information technology and has a photography business on the side, and Forbes, an engineer, shared their story with reporters from a former mobile phone store near the Milford shopping mall's front entrance. They had made the drive from southeastern Connecticut to attend the unveiling of the state Department of Children and Families' Connecticut Heart Gallery, a display of children in state care who are awaiting permanent homes.

Their twins, now 17-year-old high school seniors who told their parents they would rather not be identified, were about to appeal for permanency via inclusion in the Heart Gallery when the children and adults found their forever family at the library. Leffingwell had volunteered to photograph the kids for their Heart Gallery portraits, and Forbes tagged along.

The social worker who accompanied the kids to the photo shoot noticed the instant connection between the two adults, who had always said they would like to start a family someday, but had never done it, and the twin brother and sister.

One thing, as they say, led to another.

Leffingwell and Forbes became licensed foster parents and started hosting the kids, who had turned 10 by then, for day visits, then overnight stays. The children moved into the couple's home full time in June 2010, and on Aug. 29, 2011, the day after Tropical Storm Irene had dropped two trees on their house, the couple adopted the twins.

The newly formed family underwent counseling and today, the parents say their home life is pretty normal.

"They want this, they want that," the father said. "We say no and they hate us. It's typical."

Each twin has a cat and dog of her/his own, and both are working on their driver's license, which frightens the parents.

The DCF has been putting children's photographs and descriptions on its website for years and featuring them in a traveling display. This year's Heart Gallery includes photos, videos and paintings of adolescent or older teens who have chosen to be included and who smiled for the cameras of volunteer photographers with the hope of tugging at the heartstrings of prospective parents. 

DCF introduced a new feature this year, an app called Live Portrait that allows visitors to point their phones at a symbol near each featured child's photo to watch the child tell her or his story in a 2½-minute video.

"Prospective parents can see and learn about the kids," said Steve Lovelace of Chester-based gener8or communications, which produced the videos. "The videos really show their personalities and their likes."

If it seems like the kids are being advertised, well, they are.

"They want families and families want kids," Lovelace said. "It's a way to connect them. It's bridging a gap. Everything is advertising, marketing, if you think about it."

Something about being on video frees up the children to talk, according to Darlene Scirpo, also of gener8or. At the end of a video of a boy named Jesus, she asked him if there was anything else he wanted to say, Scirpo said.

"He said, 'Somebody adopt me,'" Scirpo said.

DCF social worker Jacqueline Ford, who runs the Heart Gallery program, said the exhibit will be at the Post Mall indefinitely. The gallery has brought together many parents and children over the years, according to Ford, who said that in the past year, four or five kids have been adopted and removed from the gallery.

Sheena Infante-Davis, a 24-year-old culinary arts student and certified nursing assistant who was adopted at age 15 after spending years in the foster system, said she wished there had been a Heart Gallery when she was looking for a family. She wore a bright red blouse and matching lipstick to the Valentine's Day gallery opening and said it meant everything when she was adopted by Brenda Davis.

"Not everyone wanted a teen-ager," she said. "She didn't have to take me into her home."

Instead of getting "lost in the system" and eventually aging out of it without anybody to fall back on, Infante-Davis said she is lucky to have found a "sense of security."

k.florin@theday.com

Julia Hogan, 14, of Woodbridge uses her smartphone to watch a video of a child available for adoption, as the state Department of Children and Families opens the Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Hogan is a Girl Scout cadet in Troop No. 60537 and was delivering a package of 'First Night' bags she prepared, containing items children might need on their first night with a foster family. Hogan was working on the project for her Girl Scout Silver Award. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Julia Hogan, 14, of Woodbridge uses her smartphone to watch a video of a child available for adoption, as the state Department of Children and Families opens the Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Hogan is a Girl Scout cadet in Troop No. 60537 and was delivering a package of "First Night" bags she prepared, containing items children might need on their first night with a foster family. Hogan was working on the project for her Girl Scout Silver Award. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Volunteer Sheena Infante-Davis of Hamden, left, who was adopted at the age of 15, describes her experinces as she addresses attendees of a news conference during the officially opening of the state Department of Children and Families' Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Behind her is a portrait of a child available for adoption, on display in the gallery. Jacqueline Ford, Heart Gallery coordinator, DCF foster care and adoption recruitment specialist, looks on. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Volunteer Sheena Infante-Davis of Hamden, left, who was adopted at the age of 15, describes her experinces as she addresses attendees of a news conference during the officially opening of the state Department of Children and Families' Heart Gallery, an exhibit of photographs, biographies, videos and paintings of children available for adoption, in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Behind her is a portrait of a child available for adoption, on display in the gallery. Jacqueline Ford, Heart Gallery coordinator, DCF foster care and adoption recruitment specialist, looks on. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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