PORT RICHEY — It was sweltering outside a small, squat house in a small, squat neighborhood. Clarence Jefferson, 34, plastered duct tape over a hole one of his seven children had torn in their plastic yellow water slide.
Inside, the three older boys waited in swim trunks. The youngest, 5-year-old Clarence Jefferson, nicknamed Thomas, couldn't decide whether to go out.
Clarence fixed the toy, watched his boys tackle it for a while from his small concrete porch. The heat finally hit, and he went into the dining room to play cards with his fiancee, Rosemary Echezabal, and Clarinesha, his 12-year-old daughter.
Clarinesha flipped on Pandora Radio on the computer. She selected a station based on the vocal group the Temptations. As she walked back to the table, Clarence crooned an "oooooh" with the music.
Clarinesha made a face, scrunching her lips and nose, before exchanging a wicked smile with Rosemary.
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The calm, domestic scene belies the struggle that led the family here.
Four of Clarence's children are biological — Terrinesha, 16; Clarence M., 13; Hy'Keym, 11; and Clarinesha. He adopted the other three in November — Brian, 12; Ciara, 10; and Clarence "Thomas," 5.
It might be hard for some to imagine how a house with two adults and seven children could be anything but chaotic, but they manage somehow. Clarence works as a cook, and Rosemary cares for the children full time, and both enjoy the full house. When the kids split up to go outside or play in their rooms, the house can even fall quiet.
"I teach my children respect and manners and how to carry themselves," he said. "I have no problems with them. They know right from wrong, and that makes it easier."
Three years ago, his adopted children's mother, Michelle Harvey, was sick. Cancer, they told her, in her bones. She wasn't going to live long. Her husband, Anthony, exhausted his energy caring for her, losing his job in the process.
The Department of Children and Families stepped in, observed Anthony's dirty, one-bedroom mobile home, and threatened to take the children if Anthony didn't take classes, find employment and improve his living conditions.
In October 2009, Anthony's wife died. Clarence, who met Anthony at Union Missionary Baptist Church, helped Anthony find another job.
But DCF had also mandated Anthony take child care classes. He went to a few, thought he was finished long before he'd completed the required number. He stopped going.
Clarence went with him to Judge William Webb's courtroom the day the system took Anthony's children.
Clarence and his now ex-wife, Monique, made quick, difficult decisions, seeing that the three were going to be absorbed into foster care.
They agreed to take the children for about nine months. They enrolled in DCF classes, agreed to background checks, bought beds and clothes. Clarence took the three to the doctor and dentist for the first time in about six years.
Time passed. Anthony didn't comply with DCF's instructions. Brian, Ciara and Thomas learned to call Clarence "dad." He decided to adopt them permanently.
The process was derailed when Monique left Clarence, moving to Louisiana with their four biological children.
Clarence worked with the court to retrieve them while he picked up the pieces, paying off bills, moving with his other three children, hiring a divorce attorney, but the case is still open.
The court eventually issued a pickup order for Clarence's biological children.
Monique could still see them if she wanted to. She promised to come last Christmas, but she didn't.
Clarence started the process again, this time with Rosemary, whom he'd met at church and proposed to. He did the classes, the inspections, the interviews.
In November 2011, after two years of caring for seven children, he could finally call himself their father.
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Yet Anthony is still their biological father, and he said he isn't finished fighting for them.
The goal of persuading the court to give them back is a distant one, and he isn't taking steps to achieve it just now. He has a job but isn't taking classes or looking into a new home.
Anthony visits his children two to three times a week at Clarence's home. He doesn't want to visit too much. He's afraid he could drive a wedge in the new family.
But he's a father. He'll never be satisfied to spend evenings after work alone. He'll never be satisfied with silence where there was once chatter and laughter and chaos.
Clarence and Rosemary are a blessing, Anthony said. But he wants his children back as soon as possible.
He said he just has to keep faith.
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Anthony visited them at Clarence's house, sprawled on a leather love seat while his kids danced in front of him to music blaring from YouTube. They practiced hops, dives, kicks. Clarence watched from the dining room table.
Who is their father? The man who raised and lost them, or the man they call father, who took them when they had no one?
It didn't matter just then.
Anthony smiled when Terrinesha put on the Cupid Shuffle, and said he recognized it. Clarence told him to join the kids.
"I don't know how to do it," Anthony replied.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.