Uncle becomes weary, loving foster dad at 20

It's 9:10 a.m., and Joseph Democko -- desperately -- needs to sleep.

The 21-year-old has not been up all night partying, as men of his age are known to do. Democko works as a night janitor at Disneyland. As the sun rises, his second shift begins -- as Orange County's youngest foster parent.

His charges: three children, all younger than 5, one with severe disabilities.

They are the offspring of his twin sister, Jody, whom Democko describes as a sweet if wayward girl whose drug addiction, past prison time and whereabouts -- unknown -- make parenthood out of the question.

The children are wards of the state. Democko hopes they will not stay that way. With little experience, less support and almost no money, the rail-thin, dark-haired young man with a worried expression but a determinedly upbeat outlook wants to prove he is capable of being more than a foster parent. He wants to be a dad.

The next 24 hours will prove just how difficult that may be.

Democko must feed, clothe and care for Chris, 4, Anthony, 3, and George, just 1 year old. That means after a night of mopping floors at Disneyland, Democko, a handsome young man with dark circles under his eyes, has just enough time to splash water onto his face before loading the three boys into the car for a trip to the grocery store.

Every parent knows the routine -- wrestling small, wriggling bodies into sparkly Elmo sneakers, loading the stroller into the car, collecting snacks, wiping a snotty nose. Then the drive to the store, the dismount from car to cart. It takes nearly an hour.

It's 10 a.m. when Democko pulls into the parking lot of the Vons supermarket on Chapman Avenue and Haster Street.

Inside, Democko buys a giant can of Ragu spaghetti sauce, a family-size package of chicken and some salad.

"You sure you won't fall?" Democko asks a squirming Anthony, who is perched in the cart basket. "How much you want to bet?"

Democko makes $9 an hour at Disney -- about half of what he made as a medical-collections agent before the children came.

But the children came, and the day job went. Plus, "The insurance is really good" at Disney," he says.

Extra insurance is important. Democko receives $425 a month from the state for the two youngest children. Chris, the oldest, gets $1,250, because he has spina bifida, a neurological disease that bows the legs and numbs the lower extremities. Chris cannot walk -- he crawls on his hands and knees -- and his legs are so bowed he can turn his feet almost completely backward. He must be catheterized every four hours.

Chris' needs double Democko's responsibilities. The boy must go to physical therapy twice a week and see doctors "quite a bit. More than I ever thought (he'd) have to," Democko says.

The monthly allowance pays for Chris' care, but not Democko's time and dedication.

A loving heart, not a large salary, big house or even child-raising experience, is the main criterion for becoming one of Orange County's nearly 500 foster parents, according to the Orange County Social Services Agency. Demand -- more than 3,000 children need homes -- makes Democko's imperfect if committed parenthood possible.

"From the beginning, Joseph showed a strong determination," says Julie Akau, the social worker who monitored Democko's case. "(He) proved to be a nurturing parent who was very interested in the boys' well-being."

It's 10:30 a.m. Back in the car loaded with groceries, the two youngest fill the van with the slurping sound of two bottles that Democko has given them.

"Normally he's crashed by now," Democko says of George, the youngest. The two regard each other in the rearview mirror.

"You are tired," Democko says with some hope. George's thick black eyelashes droop, but his eyes stay open.

Democko stops at Westmont Elementary School to talk with Chris' physical therapy teacher about a new pair of braces for his legs. Democko knows Chris needs to crawl less and use his walker more to build up strength in his legs.

Chris is resistant.

"Walker stay here," Chris says, then starts to cry when Democko pushes the walker in front of the boy. "Carry Chris!"

"Chris, please take it," Democko says. "I'm gonna leave you here."

Chris takes a few bobbing steps and then looks at the ground, wet from rain the night before.

"It's too rainy," Chris says.

"It's sunny, buddy. You got this far. Please finish."

Chris does and is rewarded with a hug. "You did a great job," Democko says.

Chris crawls into his car seat and says, "I did it for you."

Chris was the first child of Democko's sister's marriage to a man who "expected women to stay home and the man to make money, only he didn't make any money," Democko says.

Three children later, the husband has disappeared. Democko's sister, who he suspects is a chronic user of morphine and other drugs, calls occasionally but has not been seen for more than four months.

"She's a very good mother, but she was just too young," Democko says. "She wasn't ready for it."

11:35 a.m. Democko makes a lightening run to IKEA to spend a gift certificate he got from a well-wisher. After changing George's diaper in the car -- "The men's room doesn't have diaper changers" -- he drops the children in the ball pit room and walks quickly through the store's mazelike corridor.

"I'm getting a little tired," he says. "My eyes are getting heavy. I'm feeling it. But Monday and Wednesdays I have to stay up as long as possible."

He looks at a $129 bookshelf that will use up half of the gift certificate. He settles on a pair of sheets with sheep on them and a crib quilt.

Back at the car, the boys are tired and querulous. Chris and Anthony poke at each other.

Democko is tired and harassed himself, but he hasn't lost all sense of humor. "I'm going to pull the car over," he warns the boys. Then he turns and winks. "I love being able to say that."

Noon. At the drab three-bedroom apartment Democko has rented in Anaheim, Calif., the boys tumble onto the close-cropped patch of grass that separates their front door from dozens of others.

Democko got the apartment for the price -- $1,450 -- not the location. He yells at the boys if they run -- or in Chris' case, crawl -- too far down the rows of anonymous single-story white stucco apartments. He worries about his neighbors.

"I don't feel safe," he says.

The living room has a giant television, a bookshelf filled with children's videos, a few photos of the boys, a Disney calendar. The boys' room features a giant stuffed Barney dinosaur, a blue ape, plastic bags full of clothes and a large fan for times when the heat becomes oppressive. Chris' leg braces lie on the floor.

Democko heads straight to the kitchen, where he begins stacking dishes.

"Heaven forbid this house is not clean if Social Services comes," he says grimly.

Democko's role as a foster parent and his desire to adopt puts pressures on him that other parents do not have. At any time he can be visited by a caseworker and penalized if the house is dirty or the children improperly dressed or fed. Democko knows that his youth -- he got possession of George at age 20 -- subjects him to special scrutiny.

"That was the huge issue," Democko says. "Social Services said I'm a 20-year-old male. Males can hardly take care of themselves, much less a child.

"I said, `I'll prove them wrong.'"

That determination means taking on even the toughest tasks.

It's 12:30 and long past due for Chris' catheter. As he is led into the bedroom, the boy whimpers, then screams.

"Do you want to do this the easy way or the hard way?" he is asked.

The easy way means Chris cooperates. The hard way means he will be held down while the catheter is inserted.

"The easy way," Chris says.

It doesn't last long. It's not pleasant.

Why would such a young man take on such a huge responsibility?

"I couldn't live without them," Democko says. "I hear all the bad things about kids going into foster care. ... I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try."

And, he says, "I want to do everything my parents didn't do with me."

Democko and his sister grew up in Santa Ana's Clinton Mobile Estates near the intersection of Clinton Street and Westminster Avenue. Their father, an itinerant manual laborer who briefly worked at the Orange County Fairgrounds, left them when Democko was 6 years old. They lived with their mother, who residents thought sold drugs from the mobile home window, according to Clinton Mobile Estates Manager Vadette Mariscal.

Democko also says a park resident molested him, his sister and other children in the park -- incidents Mariscal confirmed.

"We sued the mobile home park and sent the guy to jail," Democko says.

The family moved to a one-bedroom hotel room on Harbor Boulevard, which became home for 13 years. Then the family ran out of money, moved, was evicted and moved again.

"I had to grow up faster now because my mom couldn't support us," Democko says.

His mother, Susan, 53, a heavyset woman with long, graying red hair and a smoker's raspy voice, lives with him. She helps care for the children in the afternoon when Democko takes a four-hour nap before his evening shift.

Susan is obviously caring, but also impatient and tired. She alternates between placating the children and barking at them.

As a baby sitter, "She's kind of a slacker," Democko acknowledges. "But I'll take what I can get."

In the evening, Susan goes to work at Wal-Mart, where she gets paid an extra dollar an hour to work as a night stocker. The children stay with Nichole, a high school friend who volunteers to sleep in the house each night. There are no weekends, vacations or nights off.

It's 2 p.m., and Democko has not slept for nearly 19 hours.

"Play with me," Anthony says.

Democko drops to his knees and hugs and kisses George.

"I have to go to bed, otherwise I would play with you," he says.

Democko retreats to his bedroom -- a mattress on the floor, a large fan. Susan switches on "The Montel Williams Show." It features a psychic.

The children, resisting all attempts at naps, run wild. When they get too rough or do things they are not supposed to do, such as spit, Susan chants empty threats.

"No dessert tonight. No ice cream," she says, not moving from the couch.

At 2:45 she's had enough and shakes her exhausted son awake.

"No matter what I do, they don't listen," she says.

"You have to handle it," Democko says. "I have to sleep."

Susan returns to the living room.

"It's hard, but we do it," she says. " `Cause Joey wants these kids in the family. He loves his kids."

Does he ever have doubts?

"He has his moods," Susan says. "But most of the time he doesn't seem to mind. We had this talk when he decided he wanted to take these kids. I said, `You're giving up your life.' ... But he's not a normal young person. He's always acted older than what he really was."

At 3 p.m. Susan wakes Democko again.

"Joey, I'm sorry, Chris is not minding me at all," she says.

Democko sits up, then flops back on the mattress.

Susan wakes Democko again at 4 p.m. and again at 5:45 p.m. with similar complaints. At 6:10 p.m. Democko is up and feeding George. The two other boys are less willing to eat dinner, but Democko's patience is at an end.

"You're going to eat, or you're going to bed. Those are your choices," he says.

At 7:15 p.m. it's time for Chris' catheter again. By 7:30, Anthony is exhausted and screaming. When Democko's friend Nichole arrives, Susan is visibly relieved.

"Oh, good," she says. "I've been trying all day. I've been very patient with them."

By 9 p.m. Democko is in uniform and at work in a gift shop on the main street of Disneyland. Aside from the rings under his eyes, he does not exhibit any signs of exhaustion. He pushes a vacuum cleaner past glass balls filled with dancing fairy tale princes and princesses, past figurines of Mickey Mouse dressed as The Sorcerer's Apprentice, fending off the relentless advance of buckets and brooms.

"It's a fairly normal day," he says. "Maybe a little less sleep than normal."

It will start again in just a few hours.



The initial reporting for this story was done more than a year ago when the boys in Democko's care were wards of the state. The Register held back publication until the adoption was finalized and the names of the children could be used. In September, after nearly three years of evaluation by Orange County Social Services, Democko was allowed to adopt all three boys.

Democko's mother, Susan, died of heart failure in November 2005. Chris found her body. The death was "devastating," according to Akau, the social worker, yet, "Joseph seemed to mature as a result." Democko put the boys in day care, quit his night job at Disneyland and got a better-paying job at the medical-collection agency where he once worked. His rent increased to $1,575 -- more than his take-home pay. He pays bills with the support the state gives him for the children.

Democko's sister Jody finished a five-month prison sentence for vehicle theft on Jan. 22. In prison, she gave birth to a fourth child, a girl, whom Democko plans to adopt "when I can prepare a little more." A colleague from Democko's office is caring for the child.

Democko took out a loan to buy a larger family car, which was totaled a month later when an uninsured driver hit it. Democko did not have full coverage on his insurance policy and had to take out a second, $15,000 loan to buy a vehicle.

Democko, 23, has not had a vacation, a date, or a day off for more than three years.

Despite the difficulties, Democko remains unswayed by what he has taken on.

"When my mom died, I was freaking out," he says. "For a moment, I didn't want to keep doing it. I (felt like) I didn't have anybody."

"But I'm better now," he says. "I'm ready. I've done it so far. I'll do almost anything I can to make sure these kids are not put in a bad spot. It keeps me going. It keeps me from being what the average person would be."