On a muggy Monday in mid October, Angela Atherton slid her court papers into a green backpack and boarded the bus across from her home.
She rode for two hours, transferred three times. Got off at a McDonald's and walked a mile in the midday sun. Down U.S. 19, up a side street, through the parking lot at the Salvation Army. Across the road to the building where somebody else was taking care of two of her children.
Angela was early. As usual.
Her kids had been gone for a month and she got to see them for only an hour each week, so she didn't dare miss a minute.
She knew they would be waiting. Knew the caseworker would be watching.
She sank into a chair in the visitation room and dropped her backpack on the floor.
"Oh my gosh, you've got pigtails!" Angela cried when her youngest daughter peered through the door. Rozlynd, 4, was wearing white sneakers and a sundress Angela had never seen. Some temporary parent had brushed her long, brown hair into pink bands.
"I missed you, Mommy," the girl squealed. "I've been counting down days, just like you said."
"Four more, right?" 8-year-old Logan asked as he ran into the room. "You said four more days and we get to come home, right?"
"It's supposed to happen Thursday," Angela told them. "I sure hope we're almost done."
Angela Atherton and her husband, Steve, have six children, ages 4 to 17. Angela, 35, always stayed home with the kids while Steve, 42, built houses. But last year, construction dried up and their income tanked.
Angela sold her van to pay rent. They moved into a motel, then found a foreclosed house on Highland Avenue in Clearwater. Steve offered to fix it up if his family could live there.
They were making it, for a while. Then, in March, their 13-year-old son got into a fight with his 11-year-old brother. That brought sheriff's deputies to their door, followed by child protective services.
For years, the Athertons had quietly struggled to raise their family, without the scrutiny of the state. Now, suddenly, they had a case plan. If they wanted to keep their kids, everyone had to see a psychiatrist. Case managers started stopping by.
The System was watching.
"Children need a bath," one report said. "Kids need dental care." The oldest daughter, who's 17, has epilepsy and needed to see a neurologist. The youngest son, who's 6, tried to run away. All the kids had been held back in school.
Steve is bipolar, but couldn't afford his medications.
"Family in need of parenting," one case worker wrote. "High risk."
In May, a court order said they had to "participate in family therapy. Follow up with mental and physical needs of children." And "maintain stable housing and income."
Angela and Steve loaded all the kids on the bus and took them to doctors. They worked with therapists, set goals and enforced rules. Angela searched for work. Steve started a bike repair business in the garage.
It wasn't enough. In July, their electricity was shut off. The next month, the water went, too.
Sweating through the Florida summer, Steve and Angela carried mattresses onto the screened porch so the family could sleep. They collected rain to flush the toilet, sponge-bathed with bottled water.
On Sept. 11, case managers decided the home was unlivable. They took all six children into foster care. And it wasn't going to be easy for Angela and Steve to get them back.
Last year, the state removed 14,492 children from their homes for abuse or neglect. In Pinellas and Pasco counties, the number was 1,238. In Hillsborough it was 1,007.
"Most children are removed because of the parents' substance abuse or domestic violence," said Lorita Shirley of Eckerd Community Alternatives, who has worked in Florida's child welfare system for 17 years.
The Athertons don't have drug problems. Neither has a criminal record. Their issues were different. Their home had no kitchen sink. Their kids looked dirty and often acted out. The last straw was when they lost their electricity and water.
"The economy is certainly taking its toll on families," Shirley said. "But poverty itself isn't reason to remove a child. We try to help the parents find resources, and we rely heavily on compliance with a case plan."
Florida statutes give parents a year to show they should regain custody of children the state has taken away. Sixty-eight percent of children removed from their homes are returned within that time.
But some never make an effort to get their kids back. Some start the plan, but get overwhelmed. In cases where parental rights are taken away in court, the kids stay in foster homes or, if they're lucky, ultimately get adopted.
The question for the Athertons was whether they could keep their family together. Angela couldn't stand the thought of anyone else tucking her kids into bed, much less taking them home.
When the kids were removed, the state placed them in Sallie House, a new group foster care home run by the Salvation Army. The house has beds for 24 kids. It's one of the only places large enough to take in large groups of siblings. It also has a visitation room, so parents can play with their kids instead of having to sit with them in an office. And it gives caseworkers a chance to watch families interact.
"I have been impressed with these parents' dedication and determination," said Jennifer Rayl, who worked with the Athertons at Sallie House. "But it's hard for us to say what should happen.
"There's always a piece of you that has a reservation about sending them back."
For days after her kids were gone, Angela didn't eat or sleep. She guzzled coffee and energy drinks, wondering what she had done wrong, what she could do differently. At night, she said, she paced the dark, empty house.
Angela and Steve had never spent a night away from their kids. They had never left them with a babysitter or a grandparent.
At first they weren't allowed to see their children. Couldn't even call them. They had no idea what was happening to them, how they were, what to do.
The older boys, they knew, would be angry. They hoped they didn't do anything stupid at the group home. The little ones must be so scared.
Was someone helping Logan brush his teeth? Was anyone reading Rozlynd a bedtime story?
"We love our children," they kept telling the caseworker. "We'll do whatever it takes to get them back."
Angela borrowed money from her mom. Steve rebuilt bikes by lantern light. Within a couple of weeks, they had power and water again.
It was a start, the caseworker said. The oldest daughter, Leanna, was allowed to go live with her grandmother. The two oldest boys, Elijah and Kaleb, plus the youngest boy, Owen, were sent home. Those three had been the most difficult for the parents to handle, the caseworker reasoned, so the Athertons should settle in with them before Logan and Rozlynd returned.
Steve and Angela tried to help the 4- and 8-year-old understand why they couldn't come home, too. It was the judge's decision, they said. You'll be home soon.
The night the three boys came home, Angela tucked them into new bunk beds. Then she stood over the empty one where Logan should be. His Santa blanket was waiting. It still smelled like him.
For the next three weeks, the Athertons hurried to complete their case plan. They shuttled their boys to doctors' appointments, took them to tutors, enrolled Rozlynd in preschool even though she wasn't around to go. Steve got his meds, hung cardboard across the home's broken windows, shored up the kitchen ceiling.
Their case manager had scheduled a reunification hearing for Oct. 15. If everything was checked off, if a supervisor agreed they had complied, they would be able to bring their last two children home.
Now, on the muggy Monday in October, Angela was playing cards with her kids in the visitation room at Sallie House. They talked about Daddy and their brothers and the kittens, who were getting big. Logan told her about his new school, new teachers, new friends his parents had never met.
"You look tired," Angela said, brushing back her son's bangs. "You know we're trying to get you back, right?"
The boy nodded but didn't look at his mom. "We have a hearing Thursday, a meeting," she said. "We're hoping they let you come home."
They colored pictures and cuddled on the couch. Did a puzzle. Built a wooden birthday cake.
A couple of weeks earlier, Logan had turned 8 in Sallie House. Angela had carried Sweetbay cupcakes in her lap for two hours on the bus.
Now she checked the clock. "Okay guys, come give me a hug," she said. "I have to go."
"Already?" Logan whined.
"Nooo!" wailed Rozlynd, wrapping her arms around her mom's legs.
"I'm sorry. It's only four more days," Angela said. "I love you."
She pried off her daughter's fingers, kissed her kids and turned away. She didn't let herself cry until she was on the bus.
On the morning of the reunification hearing, Angela woke up worrying. She and Steve thought they had completed everything they had been told to do. But the case managers always seemed to find something — a missing smoke detector, broken electrical cover, fleas on the cats.
Angela had promised her kids they could come home today.
What if they couldn't? What if she let them down again?
She washed her long hair and twisted it into a bun. Steve scrubbed the grease off his hands and arms. They stuffed a 4-inch stack of court papers into that green backpack, loaded their boys onto the bus.
Black clouds striped the sky as they trudged to meet their caseworker. "We're going to get wet," Angela said. "I tried so hard to look nice and now we're going to be soaked. Those caseworkers notice everything. I don't want them writing, 'Mom is disheveled.' "
They held hands through the hearing. Angela kept looking at Steve. Steve was staring at the caseworker, trying to read her.
Another woman, a supervisor they had never met, thumbed through their thick file.
"Allegations of inadequate supervision, mental illness needs not being met, inadequate housing," read the woman.
Angela bit her lip. Steve pressed his fist beneath his chin. "Other than that," the woman said, smiling, "you have had nothing but positive evaluations."
They have all been through counseling, said the caseworker. They have taken parenting classes and gotten services for their children. All their therapists recommend reunification. "The boys' room is completely revamped," said the caseworker. "And the little girl's room looks amazing. It's pink, with a princess bed."
And so, she said, she would drive to Sallie House, pick up Logan and Rozlynd, and bring them home.
"Right now?" Steve asked. The caseworker nodded. Angela wept.
At 6 p.m., only a few minutes after the Athertons got off the bus, a white Honda turned into their driveway. The boys started screaming, "They're here! They're here!" They flung open the doors, climbed in beside their brother and sister.
Rozlynd wriggled free and jumped into Angela's arms. "I been missing you, Mommy!" she said.
"Oooh," Angela cooed, burying her face in her daughter's hair. "I been missing you too, baby."
The boys dragged the barbecue from the back yard. Angela took Logan and Rozlynd inside to show them their new rooms. When they came back out, Steve had wheeled their bikes into the driveway. "Want to go for a ride?" he asked Logan. "Did you miss your bike?"
The boy shook his head. "Not my bike," he said. "Just all you guys."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825. News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.