Cop becomes foster dad, sacrifices to provide 2 boys a good life
A Pittsburgh police pursuit drove Detective Jack Mook to become a father.
Mook, a trainer at Steel City Boxing, told himself that the troubles of brothers Josh and Jessee Lyle were not his own as long as the boys arrived at the North Side gym for their almost-daily workouts. Then they stopped showing up and their guardian fled from police, crashing into a car and an embankment in the North Side.
“I said, ‘Enough is enough. I want those kids,' ” said Mook, 44, of Brighton Heights. “They could've been in that car.”
It's been over a year since he obtained an emergency order to become the boys' foster father, and he's pursuing permanent adoption with the support of the boys' mother. Their case is a bright spot in Allegheny County, where child welfare advocates cite a dire need for foster care for older children.
“It's not always about raising a baby,” said Jacki Hoover, assistant deputy director of the county Office of Children, Youth and Families. “We're struggling to find foster families for older youth. If family isn't found, they have to be placed in congregate care. That's not a place for any child to grow up.”
Mook met Josh, a wiry 14-year-old who can juke and jab punching bags and opponents alike, about six years ago when the boy came to the gym on Homer Street in Spring Hill. His brother Jessee, 11, soon followed.
“Josh is just a remarkable kid,” Mook said. “His work ethic is amazing. Little Jessee was a ball-of-fire tough guy. He's the comedian.”
Mook soon began coaching Josh and learned more about their troubled home life.
“He was so skinny; you could see his rib cage,” said Mook, who would take Josh out to eat along with other trainers at Steel City. “I've been a bachelor my whole life, so around the table I see now how at a dinner table you get conversation. … That's how we kind of got together: we built a rapport.”
Becoming a family
The boys' parents struggled with drug addiction and lost custody of the children. They went to live with their aunt and uncle even though Mook was their emergency contact at the time. He said he didn't realize how bad the environment was.
“I've seen poor kids on the street my whole life, and on the job,” said Mook, a 20-year police veteran. “I just thought, ‘It's none of my business as long as he's coming to the gym and he's got energy.' ”
But his suspicion was roused when the boys stopped coming to the gym. Mook picked them up from school one day in December 2012.
“Josh looked bad,” Mook said. “He had hair missing and blotches on his face, and he was saying he wasn't allowed at the gym. Jessee was worse; he was crying.”
Mook called the CYF office but says a caseworker assured him the boys were fine. When their uncle was arrested for the January 2013 crash, Mook obtained an emergency order to get the boys out of the home and with him on Feb. 5, 2013.
They've become a family, talking about dek hockey games over dinner as the History Channel plays on TV in the background.
“It's something we discussed, but for him to follow through and help these kids out ...,” said Greg Hamilton, 31, of Spring Hill, a trainer at Steel City. “Words can't describe the leaps and bounds they've made in a year. He's growing them into men.”
Though she was unfamiliar with Mook's case, Hoover said it's possible the boys would have been separated if they moved to group homes on their uncle's arrest. Of the 1,400 children in out-of-home placement in Allegheny County, 248 live in group homes.
“It sounds as though he was that connection even before we were involved,” Hoover said. “That's what you really need — for people to have that sense of community and to help care for children when they sense that there's something not quite right at home.”
Both boys described the home they escaped as dirty, with dog feces, fleas and no bed for them.
Making a new life
Life with Mook is vastly different.
“The fridge is full of peppers and fruits; we don't have chips,” Josh said. “The house is a lot cleaner. He's a germ freak.”
Mook enrolled the boys in North Side Catholic School and put them on a healthy diet, with occasional pizza breaks. He said the trainers at Steel City, including Hamilton, help with supervision when work calls him away, although Josh is old enough to watch his brother.
“In three months, you could see drastic changes with the boys,” said Geo Heinlein, a trainer at Steel City and the brothers' godfather. “They don't have to worry about issues that kids their age shouldn't have to worry about.”
Life also is different for Mook. He works as a personal trainer in the mornings and plans on painting houses on the side this summer to earn extra money for school tuition and for the future. Josh is determined to join the military, but Mook said he's preparing for Jessee to go to college. Mook said he's not eating out or going out like he did during his single days.
“You give up a lot, but I gain more than what I've lost,” he said. “I've got a family now. It's pretty cool. Homework stinks, but I'm getting my reading skills sharpened.”
One of the biggest bumps was navigating the health care system for foster children.
On a recent visit to Allegheny Suburban Hospital in Bellevue, Mook said the receptionist turned them away because he didn't have paperwork showing he is Jessee's foster father.
Allegheny Health Network spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said it is policy at the urgent care facility to require proof of guardianship, though that policy is not in place at emergency rooms.
When Jessee had a severe asthma attack, Mook stopped at home on the way to the hospital. “I knew it was serious, but I had to run home and get the adoption papers. He was going into respiratory failure; I figured, ‘I can't chance this.' ”
Jessee is working his way back to four-night-a-week workouts at Steel City. His brother silently pushes himself through intense workouts of cardio and boxing technique exercises. The boys are 2014 Golden Glove winners and have a small collection of trophies on a shelf in their bedroom.
“Where we grew up is tough,” Josh said. “It got the toughness in us. The boxing gave us the discipline to do the right thing.”
The boys' experience underscores what the gym is all about, Mook said.
“Get these kids off the street and make them into something, and that's what it became about,” he said. “I knew I had the ability to get these kids through school and make them self-sufficient, and be able to make something out of their lives. ... They're going to become something.”
Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or email@example.com.