TAMPA — Long before they worried about losing him, he was a small bundle swaddled in a zebra blanket, delivered to them by a caseworker in the parking lot of a Steak 'n Shake.
Hours before, the 5-month-old had been removed from his mother's arms outside a Hillsborough County courtroom.
Brian and Rachell Strawser took turns that night two years ago wiping the baby's runny nose and rocking him to sleep. As the months passed, the Strawsers and their three children grew to love the little boy they nicknamed J.J.
The baby's mother, Elise Martinez, 23, wanted to remain a part of his life. But the judge was terminating her parental rights.
Caseworkers tried to find other family members who could step in, but her father had spent time in prison for killing someone. Her mother, she said, had been accused of child abuse.
The Strawsers were happy to keep J.J. And when his mother later gave birth to twin girls, the Strawsers said they would be willing to take them, too.
Then one day last April, after the Strawsers had cared for J.J. for almost 18 months, just as they were expecting to bring home the twins, Elise's father spoke up. There was one more relative.
J.J.'s great-great-aunt on his mother's side was 69. She had never met the children. But she said she would take all three.
• • •
In the past, if no close family stepped up to care for a boy like J.J., caseworkers might deliver him to foster parents like the Strawsers, sometimes for years, while they figured out what to do with him.
Because it can take up to a year for parents to earn their children back, the state would not address his future until the parent either succeeded or failed.
A practice known as "family finding" is changing that. Now if a mother or father loses the right to parent — even temporarily — caseworkers are supposed to create family trees of as many relatives as they can find.
This shift started a decade ago when a Washington child welfare director named Kevin Campbell began using the Red Cross' family-tracing techniques to help older foster children.
There was the 17-year-old with mental illness who had been in foster care for a decade. A search revealed 100 family members, including a U.S. senator.
Stories like this made it clear that caseworkers needed to start looking for relatives sooner. In 2008, it became a federal law to search for family members within 30 days of a child's removal.
"What I've seen in the country is that a majority of the states have not yet addressed that mandate," said Campbell, who consults on family finding.
Florida — second in the nation for placing neglected children with people they know — is actually doing a good job of locating family and friends for these kids. As of this month, 53 percent of the 19,772 children who have been removed from their parents are with relatives or family friends.
Family Finders, which in Hillsborough, Hernando and several other counties is funded by a federal grant, has produced heartwarming stories. A pair of teen boys reconnected in Texas with their father, who they thought had died. A toddler whose mother was in jail went to an older cousin in Tampa. A 9-year-old boy whose mother overdosed was placed with a Kentucky aunt within 72 hours.
"It depends on the people involved, but ideally kids should be with family," said Sunny Hall, chief operating officer of Hillsborough Kids Inc. "I really believe that."
But sometimes those connections are happening too late.
A prime example: J.J.
He had spent most of his life with the Strawsers. He had a quirky habit of holding his foster father's ears while drinking his chocolate milk in the morning and hid behind his foster mom's legs when strangers showed up.
Was he better with a 69-year-old great-great-aunt who shared his Puerto Rican heritage and his dark skin but whom he had never met?
• • •
One day in October, J.J. stood on his foster dad's lap in the living room of their North Tampa home. He giggled and tried to squirm away.
J.J., now 2 ½, called the Strawsers Mommy and Daddy. Trevor, 12, was a playmate. Payton, 14, was like another mother to him. Dezani, 6, wanted to change his diaper all the time.
"We've fallen in love with him," Rachell said.
Brian, 41, and Rachell, 40, have been married for 19 years. Brian is a business consultant for technology used by insurance companies. Rachell, a stay-at-home mother who homeschools her kids, had eight foster brothers.
The Strawsers had talked and prayed a lot about what was best for J.J. They didn't want to deprive him of his family. The boy's great-great-aunt, Emilia Bell, and her granddaughter, Demetris Boyrie, 36, seemed nice and caring.
Still, they worried.
Was Bell able, at almost 70, to care for three toddlers? Who would be their primary caregiver? Why wasn't Boyrie adopting them?
The Strawsers believed that J.J. would be better with both a father and a mother. At the same time, they wondered if they were doing what was right for him.
"We never came in to cause ill will to the family," Rachell said. "At the same time, I just didn't feel comfortable releasing him."
But Hillsborough Kids and its case managers from Camelot Community Care told them one day this summer they were going to recommend that J.J. and his twin sisters live with Emilia Bell.
• • •
Rachell Strawser walked into her home one Sunday in October. "Elise is here," she said to her family.
J.J.'s mother sauntered in shyly. She wore a red Elmo T-shirt, jeans and socks with Nike flip-flops. Her kids' names were tattooed on her forearms.
She moved to the twins, who were sitting in high chairs eating Chex squares. She touched each of their arms gently. The girls lived with other foster parents but were visiting for the day.
J.J. was at the piano, slamming the keys with his middle three fingers. She reached down and touched him too, gave a tiny smile.
For months, Rachell had picked up Elise and brought her over for dinner on Sunday. She had taken her to their church. She had invited her to the park to celebrate J.J.'s second birthday.
Sometimes Elise showed up. Sometimes she didn't.
Rachell knew Elise was hurting. "I knew I had to build that relationship," she said.
Elise had gotten caught up in the child welfare system two years ago. Someone had reported that she was doing heroin. She denied it, but she said child protective investigators began watching her. Allegations, which she has a hard time articulating, piled up.
She left her kids with her mother one day when she shouldn't have; someone said in court her boyfriend posed a threat; the twins had a bad rash and she was accused of not taking them to the doctor soon enough. Now her children were living with other people. And the state was trying to find a permanent home for them with someone else who would get about $400 a month per child in public money to care for them.
Elise said she passed five drug tests and attended all of her parenting classes. Nevertheless the state continued the process of terminating her parental rights. They said she had an IQ of 55.
"My IQ has got nothing to do with my kids," she said.
Where did she want her kids to go?
"I don't know her that well," she said of her great-aunt. She had only seen her once or twice growing up.
"I want them to go where they are going to be safe," she said. "I just want to see my kids and be there. I know they'll be okay here and they let me see them every Sunday."
• • •
Emilia Bell opened the door of a tan ranch-style house in a resurgent corner of Seminole Heights. She had gray hair, a slight frame and suspicious eyes that creased into a frown. But when she was asked about the little boy who might come live with her she lit up and invited two journalists into her spotless living room.
On the walls, there were tapestries of Jesus covered in rhinestones. She said she had made them herself. A large statue of Mary sat in the center of the room, next to some small porcelain black angels.
Bell talked about how much she loved being around the three children. Since the state had decided to give her the kids, the Strawsers had been bringing them over almost weekly. But Bell couldn't remember the kids' names. She thought a moment and then called her 11-year-old great-granddaughter into the room.
"I don't know how to say their names," she said. The girl obliged her with the names. She nodded and continued.
"My nephew called me on the phone and said he's got a problem," she said. "He said (Elise) was going to lose the kids."
She had raised four daughters and lived with her granddaughter, Demetris Boyrie, for 26 years. Bell said she was used to taking care of kids. She even had custody of Boyrie's 11-year-old daughter.
"I swear if they gave me the pleasure to have those kids, I think I'd live a little bit longer because I love kids," she said.
She paused, twisted the edge of her dress in her fingers.
"I'm getting so scared that they will tell me I can't have the kids," she said. "They're my blood. They belong in my family. Why are you going to split a family?"
• • •
This isn't the first time that extended family and foster parents have fought over a child in Florida.
Often the argument comes down to how much the child has bonded with the foster family compared to the importance of raising the child with his biological family.
In 2010, the Department of Children and Families issued a memo that advised caseworkers to be careful when removing children from their caregivers up through age 2.
"According to researchers, the child experiences the removal as a death," wrote Alan Abramowitz, then state director of child welfare at DCF.
The bonding argument has come up often enough that Florida lawmakers passed a law limiting DCF's power to take a child from foster parents if the child has been in their home for more than six months.
Now, to do so, they would need a court order.
• • •
A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Brian Strawser sat next to his wife outside a courtroom in downtown Tampa. Across the waiting room, Elise sat between her father, her great-aunt, Bell, and her cousin, Boyrie.
A bailiff called the case, but Elise stayed outside with her father. Once her rights were terminated, she no longer had a right to attend the closed proceeding.
About 10 minutes passed and then suddenly, the courtroom door flew open and out walked Boyrie. She swept across the room, her large eyes angry, a forefinger pressed to her lips.
Elise and her father stood up, looked at Boyrie. She didn't have to say anything.
Elise began moaning. In the past two weeks, her allegiance had shifted. She hadn't returned the Strawsers' calls or come to her weekly visit. She wanted her kids to go to her great-aunt and her cousin.
Tears slipped down Elise's face.
"They did everything the guardian ad litem said," Boyrie said loudly, "because we're not qualified. I feel like my grandmother is being age-discriminated against."
They turned and disappeared noisily into an elevator.
Minutes later, the Strawsers emerged. They smiled tensely.
"Let them cool off," a guardian ad litem attorney told them.
Rachell Strawser called her daughter, who squealed upon learning the news. They would get all three children. The adoption would take place in a few months.
"As the children grow up, we want them to know who their mom is," Mrs. Strawser said. "My heart tells me it's the right thing to do."
Her phone vibrated. It was a text from Elise.
Thanks a lot. Now I won't see my kids until they're 18.
Rachell stopped in the sidewalk. She texted back.
That's not true. We want a relationship.
• • •
Federal law wasn't followed in this case.
If case managers had performed the search for J.J.'s relatives in the first 30 days, the last eight months of emotional turmoil likely would have been avoided. No judge would have needed to decide whether J.J.'s bond with the Strawsers was more powerful than his genetic link to Emilia Bell.
But for Sunny Hall, the chief operating officer of Hillsborough Kids, the outcome of this case hasn't changed her mind about this practice. Placing children with family can affect who their friends are, who they marry and where they live.
"When we make these types of decisions, we have to consider the long-term implications," she said. "When he is 70 years old and in the last years of life, he'll remember these decisions. So we have to be cognizant of that every single day."
But Hall acknowledged that implementation of the practice has not been consistent. The federal grant has provided family-finding coaches to about 25 percent of her agency's case managers. The rest have had some training, but not everyone has been doing it right.
"The old ways of doing business, sometimes it takes a while for that to move," Hall said.
In July, the agency required all of its case managers to do some form of family finding within 30 days.
• • •
Two weeks after the judge's decision, Rachell Strawser picked up Elise and took her back to her house, back to a little boy and his twin sisters.
Though Elise was still angry — not only had she lost her children, her family had, too — this was the second visit she had made since the ruling. The Strawsers also reached out to Emilia Bell and Demetris Boyrie. They haven't heard back.
But they are determined to keep J.J.'s family connections alive.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.