It was Friday and Earl Hamil had made plans to grab dinner and head to a nightclub with buddies when the call came. • The woman he raised as a daughter had been in a drug bust at a motel where she was staying with her two children. The children's grandmother, Hamil's estranged wife, also had drug problems, as did their father, and Hamil, 55, was their only hope to remain with family.
Would he take them in? a social worker asked.
"The first response was, 'I don't have any place for them,' " said Hamil, whose home was a back room at his auto repair shop.
Three days later, though, he and the children — whom he had not seen in almost two years — moved into an apartment in Clearwater. The two children brought little.
"No underwear, no socks, nothing," Hamil said. "So our first trip was to Walmart."
In the 17 months since, the once-carefree bachelor has worried about grades, lost his business, sold his truck to make ends meet, was hospitalized with heart problems and been on the verge of eviction. Yet he expresses no regrets about having the children in his life again, after reluctantly distancing himself to escape ongoing substance abuse by the adults around them.
"All I care about is taking care of the kids. I'm the only grandfather they've known,'' he said.
Hamil's bittersweet story is not unique among the grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives who struggle to care for children they love.
In Pinellas County, about 17,000 children are being brought up by relatives other than their parents, according to the Kinship Services Network of Pinellas County. The program, funded by the Juvenile Welfare Board, offers these families support.
From 2005 to 2010, the Kinship Services Network served about 280 relatives and 300 children annually, helping them with tutoring, legal services, health assessments and even hurricane supplies. The program is managed by the Children's Home in Tampa, which works with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County and Catholic Charities.
A five-year report presented recently to the JWB showed that children in kinship care have more stability than those in foster care and group homes.
"Kinship kids are more likely to report that they feel love. If you think of it, a family member chose to keep them. They are most likely to stay with their siblings … to stay in their neighborhood," said Anne Strozier of the Florida Kinship Center at the University of South Florida School of Social Work, which prepared the report.
Strozier and others advocate better government support for grandparents and other family members caring for relatives.
"Most of the grandparents raising grandchildren do so without any support from the state,'' Strozier said, adding that foster parents get almost double the financial assistance that relatives eligible for state benefits receive.
"They may be at or below poverty levels, but they are really heroes,'' Larry Cooper, a manager at the Children's Home, said of the family members who put aside their own lives for new, unexpected duties.
JWB executive director Gay Lancaster said kinship care has "an almost 100 percent success rate'' in keeping children out of foster care.
In St. Petersburg, Patricia Payne had already brought up six children alone when she became responsible for three grandsons.
"It's my daughter's children. The youngest is 5. She tested positive for drugs when she was pregnant with him," said Payne, who is 57.
Even with strong family support, the grandmother of 10 says there are times when she has struggled with the responsibility of bringing up three active boys.
"I'm not 32 years old. Trying to raise kids, you still have the same responsibility with the schools, the parenting, and when you come home from work, you have to feed them, do homework, get them ready for bed, do laundry," said Payne, who works full time.
Darion, 8, has asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Emonte, 16, an honors student in Boca Ciega High School's medical magnet program, has Crohn's disease. Makai, 5, is an active kindergartener.
The boys' mother, who is in jail, has popped in and out of their lives.
"I had to stop it. Darion, it was breaking his heart. Emonte gets angry. Until (their mother) can turn her life around I can't have it. They have to come first,'' Payne said.
"It's been a challenge,'' she said. "That's how Kinship came in. The support groups are good, because you get to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.''
Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute in Tallahassee, sees kinship caregiving as the wave of the future.
"What really matters when families are in need of kinship services is the availability of quality support that can only be provided with a government and private-sector partnership. And happily that's what we have seen in the Pinellas County model."
Loretha Johnson, 64, said she had a nervous breakdown after taking in infant grandson, Andreque, and his sister, Mausherri, 2, in 1997.
Andreque, now 14, is a difficult child, his grandmother said.
In June, she sent him to a residential program she learned about through the Kinship network. She said it gave her a 31-day respite from the child who stole her debit card, broke into a soda machine at a neighborhood school and causes her to lose sleep.
Some kinship counselors like Laurie Lampert have seen both sides.
"My daughter was a heroin junkie who got pregnant in a methadone clinic and when my granddaughter was born, they both tested positive for methadone," she said.
Lampert, 59, who has custody of her granddaughter, now 5, went from a Kinship client to getting a job with the program.
"There's a lot that I can relate to,'' she said. "It's a major change in your life."
For Hamil, the Clearwater grandfather, that might be an understatement.
"I was in tears sometimes because I was afraid of failing the kids," he said.
Things appear to be turning out well.
"The kids are doing fine,'' he said. "They had their difficulties. Even though we were thrown together, we're happy we did that."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or [email protected]