The two teenage brothers left their group foster home early Sunday. Their caseworker picked them up, complimented their new haircuts, told them to pull up their jeans. "Ready?" she asked as she arrived at her office. "Are you kidding?" said Emilio Navarrete, 15. "I set three alarms to make sure we'd be up in time." The caseworker and her supervisor had brought coffee and juice, bagels and donuts. They spread the food on a long conference table, told Emilio and Xavier, 16, to help themselves. For once, the teenagers weren't hungry.
Emilio pulled his red hoodie across his face. Xavier tugged a black ball cap over his freshly shaved head. They hunched in swivel chairs in a corner of the room, laughing but looking worried.
"So they'll be here soon, right?" Emilio asked.
The caseworker, Gabriela Naccarato, checked her watch. "I sure hope so," she said.
Any minute now, they were supposed to meet their dad.
• • •
The Navarrete boys didn't remember ever having a dad. They say their mom told them he was in jail in Texas. Then she said he got deported to Mexico. She told them: He never wanted you.
As they grew up, they stopped asking. They tried to stop caring.
They had their two big brothers. And each other. In the last year, they lost even that.
First, they say, their mother drove off with their brother Mario, 18. She said he enlisted in the Navy and they didn't see him again.
Then brother Gabriel, 17, got in trouble and ended up in juvenile. When he got out, they say, their mom refused to pick him up and he was placed in state custody.
In February, Xavier trespassed and stole some food. Said his mom wouldn't feed him. He followed his brother into juvenile jail, then landed in foster care.
Emilio couldn't take it at home alone. So in July he followed their path through juvenile into foster care. It was the only way he knew how to find the only family he had.
• • •
Three weeks ago, Gabriela Naccarato got a new job. The caseworker, who helps find homes for children in Hillsborough County, became a full-time "family-finder." Instead of placing foster kids with strangers, she was asked to search for relatives who might be willing to raise them. Her work is part of a federal effort to put kids with family members who care for them instead of with strangers.
The Navarrete brothers were her first case. She started by asking them to write down everyone in their family.
First, each other. Then, Gabriel and Mario. Their aunt Anna, who lived with their mom. Their mom, who didn't want them.
"What about your dad's side?" asked the caseworker.
The boys looked at each other and shrugged.
Using new computer software, with the help of a new grant-funded researcher, the caseworker found more than 30 Mario Navarretes in Texas, all about the right age. Some had connections to Kentucky, where she found 20 more.
Naccarato worked at home Wednesday. She turned the TV to the Lifetime network, told her kids she had calls to make. At every commercial, she dialed another number.
"Hello, this is Gabby from Tampa. I'm a caseworker for foster care. I think I might have two of your sons."
From 10 a.m. until 5:50 p.m., she called 50 numbers — without any luck. The Lifetime movie was almost over. During the last commercial, she dialed Mario number 51.
"My boys?" screamed the man from Kentucky. "You have my boys?"
• • •
Mario Navarrete moved from Mexico to build roofs for buildings in Texas. There, he got married and had four sons. The youngest was a year old, he said, when he went to Indiana for work. When he got home, his wife handed him divorce papers.
He was moving out furniture, he said, when she had him arrested for burglary. When he got out of jail, he said, his truck, his wife and four sons were gone.
He told the caseworker, "I always prayed to God, every night: I want to see them again. I had only their pictures. I looked at them all the time."
Wednesday night, when he told his new wife the news, she cried and said, "Go."
So after work Friday — after coming home to hug his 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son — Mario climbed into his Ford pickup and headed for Florida.
He drove all night, through the next morning. More than 800 miles later, on Saturday afternoon, he met the caseworker. And saw photos of his boys. They were so big, so handsome. When could he see them?
Not until the next morning, she told him. Then she told him about Gabriel, his second-oldest son. He had aged out of foster care, and she had found him on the other coast of Florida. Mario headed east and picked up Gabriel — he hadn't seen him since he was in kindergarten.
Sunday morning, he headed back to Tampa.
• • •
The two teenage brothers ran out of their caseworker's office at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. "Is that him?" Emilio called, peering across the parking lot.
A black pickup parked. Their brother Gabe got out and ran toward them, followed by a man with cropped black hair, broad shoulders and dark eyes. Just like them.
"Aaaaah!" Mario cried. "Look at you! My boys!"
He ruffled Xavier's Mohawk. Brushed back Emilio's hood and rubbed his hair. Then the dad and three brothers put their heads together and slung their arms around each other's shoulders in a huddle. They stood there, for more than a minute, holding on.
• • •
Mario wants to take his boys back to Kentucky, but first he has to pass a background check and a home study, and the boys have to stay out of trouble. The mom still is a factor, too. But the boys hope to be with their dad by Christmas.
After all the official stuff was finished, Mario had an idea. A dad idea. Something he had always wanted to do with his boys.
"Let's find somewhere to eat," he said, "and watch football."
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.