On a recent Wednesday evening, Joseph Democko had already clocked a full day as a medical billing clerk. Then his real work began. In the kitchen of his Anaheim, Calif., apartment, he tossed chicken breasts onto a skillet, dumped a packet of freeze-dried potatoes into boiling water and kept a watchful eye on his three boys – Chris, 6, Anthony, 5, and George, 3 – who scooted crazily in and out of the ground-floor flat on Razors. Clearing the table of Spider-Man toys, he set out three plates and juice boxes and called out, “Dinner’s ready!”
The scene looks like an ordinary supper with Dad, except that Democko, 23, is actually the boys’ Uncle Joey. Just a few years earlier, social services removed Chris, Anthony and George from the home of Democko’s twin sister, Jody, who spent time in jail for drug possession and forgery. Visiting his nephews at their foster home, the soft-spoken Democko was torn up every time he said goodbye. “They would scream and cry. I would cry,” he recalls. “I had to get them back or I couldn’t live with myself. They’re my blood.” That choice would transform Democko from a carefree 20-year-old who hit the gym twice a week to a multitasking single dad. But first he had to convince social services he was up to the task. “They said men couldn’t take care of themselves let alone a child,” he says. And there was an extra challenge: Chris, born with spina bifida – an incomplete closure of the spine – needs to be catheterized every four hours. Even Democko’s mother, Susan, asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? This is for the rest of your life.”
He was sure – and proved it by attending a parenting class, taking Chris to physical therapy, even getting a night-janitor job at Disneyland so his days were free for the boys. On May 3, 2004, Democko brought home 3-month-old George, becoming the youngest foster parent in Orange County. Helped by his mom (who died in 2005) and roommates, he recalls the time as a blur of diaper changes and late-night feedings. “I was a zombie,” he says. Several months later, Democko also brought home Chris and Anthony, adopting them last fall. “Twenty is very young to take on something like this, and what’s so unusual is that there are three children,” says Linda Reuter, adoption program manager for the Orange County Social Services Agency. Julie Akau, a social worker there, adds, “He’s always been very committed to the boys – and they adore him.” That devotion is something Jody Democko – the boys’ mother – appreciates even as it sometimes pains her to watch her brother bring up her sons. “It hurts,” says Jody, 23, who now lives nearby and visits several times a week. “But the boys are better off. It’s more stable. He’s always been the more responsible one.” (The boys have little contact with their birth father.) Democko, who periodically asks his sister to take a home drug test when she comes over, has mixed feelings about her role in the boys’ lives. “They sometimes call her Mom,” he says. “But I can’t count on my sister for anything, so the way I look at it, it’s just me and kids.”
Relying on himself is nothing new. He was just 6 when his father walked out, leaving the family to fend for themselves, living for years in a cramped motel room. Though his grandfather supported them, Democko helped out with chores and a part-time job. “That experience made me realize what kind of person I wanted to be,” Democko says now. He and Jody, once close, drifted apart after she ran away at 15 and eloped in Las Vegas – but that didn’t stop Democko from falling in love with his nephews from the moment they were born. “The bond was instant,” he says.
Now, Democko is doing his best to be the kind of father he never had. Between his $14-an-hour job and his $2,000 monthly stipend from social services, many weeks it’s a stretch to make ends meet. He’s also put some dreams of his own on hold. In a few years, when Chris is old enough to catheterize himself, Democko hopes to start night classes, maybe learn about the film industry. “I didn’t get to go to college, but I want to,” he says. “My time will come.” For now, he’s too busy to think much beyond the boys’ immediate needs. “The only time to myself is from 9 p.m. to midnight,” he says. “I’ll check e-mail or watch a movie. When I need to scream, I walk out the front door and hold it shut.” Still, Democko has no regrets. “I enjoy being a dad so much,” he says. “I don’t want to miss a second of it.”