It could have been worse.
Mark Minneti, 28, and Tina Palomba, 29, could have gone to prison on felony child neglect charges for leaving their children home alone.
Avery, 10, Jarret, 8, and Mya, 3, could have died in the fire that started while their parents were at work, destroying their mobile home off N Rome Avenue in September.
But the kids are fine. Avery and Jarrett live with their maternal grandmother, Holly Clark of Clearwater, and Mya lives with her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Minneti of Town 'N Country. Their parents are allowed frequent visits.
Minneti and Palomba got a break Tuesday from a Hillsborough County judge who appreciated the life of poverty the family endured. He encouraged the couple to work and save money while they complete community service hours and probation, so that they might be reunited with their children.
"I'm trying to make it as easy for you as I can for you to get back on your feet," Judge Wayne S. Timmerman said at the disposition Tuesday.
Minneti and Palomba's problems were smoldering long before the blaze.
Minneti lost his job as a baggage handler for AirTran and had to work in a labor pool. He couldn't make rent on $6.40 an hour. They were evicted from two homes in 2003 and another in June 2005.
In September, they moved into the mobile home but couldn't afford electricity. A friendly neighbor ran an extension cord for the refrigerator. Candles provided light.
Minneti asked Palomba if she would work with him at his construction job to help pay bills. Because the children weren't enrolled in school - displaced from their old school because of a recent move - she left the two youngest in the care of her 10-year-old.
That terrible day, flames from a candle in Avery's room engulfed her bed and quickly devoured most of the mobile home.
The children escaped, with the help of 79-year-old Eddie Vallina, the neighbor who supplied the refrigerator's power. Their parents went to jail, and family members later posted bail.
These days, Minneti has found it difficult to find a stable job, his attorney, Barry K. Taracks, said at the disposition. He continues to work at the labor pool. Palomba works nights at a retail store. Together, they take court-mandated parenting classes.
The Department of Children and Families won't return the kids until the couple can afford a two-bedroom apartment. They now live in a studio.
Palomba will start an 18-month pretrial intervention program, which includes community service hours and supervision, and once she completes it, her record will remain clean.
Because of two previous DUI charges, Minneti didn't qualify for the program. Timmerman gave him two years of probation and 50 community service hours. The judge withheld adjudication, which means that if Minneti stays out of trouble, he won't have to carry the felony conviction.
Taracks said he, Minneti and Palomba were satisfied with the disposition.
"This isn't a case where they were slapping their kids, hitting their kids, neglecting their kids in the sense of food, water and shelter. They were trying to provide it," Taracks said, "but they weren't providing enough supervision."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at
(813) 226-3354 or at email@example.com.