McKenzie arrived just after 8 one night last August, covered in bedbug bites from months of living in cheap motels. Her scalp was caked in a thick layer of crusty, dead skin.
She was 17 months old, born to a drug-addicted mother who was on her way to prison.
Josh and Lisa Martin, McKenzie's uncle and aunt, brought her into the fold of their own three children and made a place for her in their crowded townhouse. They threw away the Huggies box she arrived with that contained a few diapers and three worn-out sets of clothes, which all stank of cigarettes. They gave her stability — early bedtime each night, pizza dinner on Wednesdays, church on Sundays — and a new name: Georgia.
"I wanted her to have a whole fresh start," Josh Martin said.
But Georgia's new life is temporary, according to the state's plan for her, a plan governed by the philosophy of keeping families together.
Georgia's mother is set to be released from prison in September, and the state says she's entitled to a second chance. If she can follow a court-ordered plan to rebuild her life, she could get her daughter back.
And Georgia could become McKenzie again.
For caregivers like the Martins, the idea of a reunited family is not a noble goal but a risky mistake. They provide a home for a child who has never known one, they become attached, and they live with the possibility of losing that child to the same parent whose damage they have tried to repair.
"If and when she goes back to (her mother)," Lisa Martin says of Georgia, "she's going to be even more screwed up. She's had a mom, a dad and a stable home."
Nicholle West was a drug user before she was a mother. She has lived in east and west Pasco County and been arrested numerous times, most often for drug possession, here and in Hillsborough. She married and had two boys but lost them because of her drug abuse. They're 10 and 6 now, living with her parents in Land O'Lakes. She has worked many jobs — at McDonald's and Wendy's, at a doctor's office and an air conditioning company.
McKenzie was born in New Port Richey in March 2007. West, 30, lost her last summer, after testing positive for using cocaine. She was seven months pregnant at the time, carrying twins.
West screamed and cried and kicked a bailiff as she was taken into custody, court records say. And the day after arriving at Lowell Correctional Institution north of Ocala in October, to serve an 11-month sentence for grand theft, she gave birth to two daughters, Shyloh and Diella.
Child welfare workers, at West's urging, sent the babies home with their father, Thomas Ludwig. West told them they would be a family when she got out of prison in September 2009.
But Ludwig, who also had a drug habit, struggled as a parent. He lived in three different places in west Pasco in just over a month. One night in December, authorities say, he lost his cool when the babies wouldn't stop crying. His roommates on Richwood Lane in Port Richey heard a loud bang from his bedroom, and the wailing stopped. Diella died later at a hospital. Her skull was cracked and there was bleeding in her brain.
Ludwig was charged with first-degree murder. Shyloh, who had a broken leg, went into foster care.
McKenzie — a mischievous, steal-your-heart blond with wispy hair and crystal blue eyes — never met her baby sisters.
Stable new home
Nicholle's mother brought her to the Martins. It was a Thursday. Lisa, 32, had been out doing back-to-school shopping.
That first night, she put some bites of pizza in front of Georgia for dinner. Instead of gingerly picking them up with her tiny fingers — the way a toddler developing fine motor skills would — she slapped her palm down on the food and then smacked it against her mouth.
At every meal, she ate until she made herself sick and threw tantrums instead of simply pointing or asking for a cup of juice. In no time she was calling Lisa "Mommy," but she had attachment issues and called everyone Mommy.
Their therapist explained it: She was in survival mode.
Georgia's father, Shannon Eargood, hasn't seen her since she was an infant. He's in prison until 2013 on a slew of charges including grand theft and possession of methamphetamine.
If the Martins hadn't taken Georgia in, she would have landed in foster care.
Josh, 32, works for a small company as an electrician. For a while, his income was enough to support the family. Then the housing market fell off, along with Josh's income, and Lisa's part-time job at Ross became a necessity.
Their own kids are Shallon, a pretty 10-year-old who keeps close watch over her siblings; Fletcher, a soccer-playing 6-year-old; and curly-headed Coy, who is almost 3.
During the week, Lisa takes the little ones to play groups and on errands. As a family, they go on hikes along the shuttered golf course behind their house and to church each Sunday, where the parishioners know the whole story.
Weekends are a constant, hectic cycle of chores, homework, soccer games, Publix runs.
At their two-story townhouse, which is starting to show four kids' worth of wear and tear, family pictures hang above the couch.
Georgia is in them.
She points to the people in the photographs: Mommy, Daddy, Shally, Fletcher (which sounds like Guh-guh) and Coy.
She points to herself and says "Baby."
But the state Department of Children and Families still calls her McKenzie, and its goal is to reunite her with her mother.
Privacy laws prevent DCF officials from discussing the case in specifics. But Nick Cox, DCF's regional director, said the agency — guided by state law — always works toward reuniting parents with their children.
"Common sense is we want to see families succeed. We don't want to tear families apart. We want to support them," he said. "That's what best for kids, that's what best for families, that's what best for society."
And DCF says it works, especially with a new focus on providing support to keep families together, rather than removing children and then later putting them back with their parents. Statewide, the rate of kids leaving out-of-home care and going back to their families averaged about 40 percent last year, according to DCF data.
"It's pretty common that the families do reunite and get back together," Cox said. "It's a good thing."
That all comes with the caveat, he said, of ensuring the children's safety.
He also acknowledged the conflict that can arise between a parent's interest in getting a child back and the child's need for permanent stability.
"We can't just continue to eat up that child's life with failed efforts at reunification," he said. "We're really trying to be sensible."
The Martins say they have seen enough failures.
"Why wait to see what she's going to do?" Lisa said of West. "She should be stripped of her parental rights. Lives have been ruined. A child is dead."
Josh added: "A mother will always put her children first. My sister is the type of person who cannot put someone else's needs in front of her own. She can't. She won't."
But there are success stories — one even in this family. Christopher West, Nicholle's estranged husband and the father of her sons, moved back to his home state of Illinois in 2005 to escape the couple's drug-plagued existence. He has been through domestic violence classes, he says, and has three years of sobriety under his belt. His goal now: get his sons back.
He worked hard to gain the support of Nicholle's parents, who have declined to talk about their daughter. "All the hard work that I've done . . . is just a moral imperative," he said. "I had to do it," Christopher West said.
Nicholle, too, has shown signs of good mothering. Before she went to jail last summer, she took McKenzie to Little Achievers Preschool in New Port Richey for about three months.
Jennifer Chiger, the owner, remembers a happy little girl who always had a lunch packed for her and plenty of diapers, and who was excited to see her mom at the end of the day.
"You would have never known anything" was amiss, Chiger said.
West did not respond to a letter the St. Petersburg Times sent her at Lowell Correctional about this story. An attorney representing her in a civil case over Diella's death has said that she hopes to be reunited with all her children.
When she is released from prison, West will have to follow a court-imposed case plan that includes tasks like keeping a job, attending counseling and remaining drug-free.
During that process, she could begin to have supervised weekly visits with Georgia. Those often happen in a place like a park or a McDonald's play area. Lisa's caseworker told her she can take Georgia to the visits, but she can't be present for them.
Loving, losing Georgia
McKenzie became Georgia during a family hiking trip to that state a few weeks after she came to the Martins.
Even now, she does not really feel like their daughter.
Lisa and Josh don't have the same bond with her as with the children they nurtured since pregnancy.
"I try daily to make that love grow," Josh says. "And it's working."
In the meantime, they treat her like one of their own. Josh scoops her up when he gets home from work, with a hug and a "Hey, baby." Lisa rocks her to sleep at night singing Yes, Jesus Loves Me. They do this so that one day when they tell her the truth about her upbringing, she won't think she was treated differently. She won't feel like she was loved less.
But they can't fool themselves. They can't pretend to settle into a life with her, knowing she might be taken away.
"I feel heartbroken," Lisa says, "because she'll think I abandoned her. She's not going to know that I'm doing everything I can to keep her safe."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.