Looking back, Ciara Charles can see it was only a matter of time before the authorities came knocking. She had tried her best to fill the void created by her mother's criminal behavior. She had followed her instincts and cared for her little sister, cooking and cleaning and getting her off to school.
Somebody was bound to notice. Ciara, just 13, walked Patricia, 6, to Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater and then headed a mile north to her middle school. One day, as Patricia waited by herself on a picnic bench for her sister, a teacher started asking questions.
This led state investigators to their home. They learned the girls most often were left alone and when their single mother was around, things were worse as she abused and sold crack cocaine. Ciara protected her sister. "I took the hits,'' she said, and yet she showed extraordinary resolve for a young teenager. Despite everything, she managed to make the honor roll at school.
Her mother went to jail. Ciara begged to stay with her sister, but social workers worried that she had been forced into a caregiving role at the cost of her own childhood. The state Department of Children and Families (DCF) placed the girls in separate foster homes. Ciara wound up with eight other kids at Debbra Leway's home in New Port Richey, 50 miles north of Patricia's shelter in St. Petersburg.
"She came in determined,'' Leway recalled. "Determined to get her sister back.''
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The sisters kept in touch but lack of transportation restricted their visits. They longed for the day they could live together again.
In 2007, as Ciara approached her 18th birthday and the deadline to "age out'' of foster care, she met with Elyse McGuire, a Clearwater lawyer and volunteer for the Guardian ad Litem, which represents abused, neglected or abandoned children in the court system. Ciara complained about the infrequent contact with Patricia, whose last name is Hardman.
McGuire helped Ciara get a 16-year-old Mazda pickup truck that had been donated through the Suncoast Voice for Children Foundation. Ciara learned to drive a stick shift and began regular visits with Patricia, who moved to the Children's Home in Tampa.
At the time, the DCF's goal for Patricia was reunification with her mother. But after another arrest for drugs, the mother's parental rights were terminated. Meanwhile, Ciara graduated from River Ridge High School, entered Pasco-Hernando Community College and rented a two-bedroom house on Madison Avenue in New Port Richey.
She successfully completed an independent living course through DCF and earned strong references from her teachers and Leway, her foster mom for five years who raved about Ciara's maturity and talent mediating disputes among other teens at the home. She worked at a friend's dress shop and a second job as hostess at a nightclub. She saved money and fixed up a room for her sister.
Still, DCF hesitated.
"Everyone was rooting for us,'' Ciara said, "but DCF wasn't convinced I could do it.''
McGuire, who had three children of her own, had grown especially close to the sisters and worried about Patricia, who took medicine for depression. McGuire argued in court for Ciara to get custody, and on Oct. 15, 2009, Circuit Judge Marion Fleming approved the arrangement.
Patricia enrolled at Gulf Middle School. "As soon as I got her,'' Ciara recalled, "her grades started going up and she no longer needed medication. I knew this was going to work.''
Ciara earned her associate's degree at PHCC and Patricia completed two years at Gulf High before they moved to a modern, rent-subsidized apartment in Oldsmar. It was there that McGuire and John Zucker, a community partner coordinator for Guardian ad Litem, met last week to spotlight their success.
"This is so rare,'' said McGuire, now a staff attorney for the guardian program. "I can't think of another case like this, where an older sibling took custody and had this kind of success.''
Patricia, now 17, is a senior at East Lake High School with a 3.4 grade point average. She has learned to play piano and sings harmonic duets with her sister. Ciara, 24, has been working at a telemarketing firm and will enter the University of South Florida in January to study psychology. Patricia hopes to join her there after graduation and major in physical therapy or criminology. Their tuition is waived because they spent so many years in foster care.
The sisters agree that their relationship has been more mother-daughter.
"I'm strict,'' Ciara said.
"That's an understatement,'' Patricia responded with a smile.
"I wouldn't let her date until she turned 16. When I first got her, I told her, 'I love you and I will look after you. But I can promise that you are not always going to like me.' ''
Ciara is working on a book. She still occasionally sees her mother, who spent a year in state prison. "I love her,'' she said, "and I forgive her. She had a rough childhood and endured a lot of abuse herself. I'm a Christian, and at the end of the day I throw my hands up and hope God catches me.''
She doesn't see herself as a role model, but rather an inspiration for other foster kids.
"When I was in high school,'' she explained, "I was doing well academically and a teacher said, 'That's strange for a foster kid.' I know that's what people expect, but I want to show others that it is possible to succeed, even excel. I know I'm going to be a foster parent myself someday.
"I'll be a good one.''