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Love for daughters stronger than drugs

When David Baker realized his children were being taken by the state of California, he cleaned up his life and got them back.

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

PORT RICHEY -- It was a sweltering Friday in September 1999 when David Baker, 47, hopped in his beat-up Chevy Celebrity and high-tailed it to California.

His sister and brother-in-law tried to talk him out of it.

"The car had bad tires, had over 100,000 miles on it and was in desperate need of a tuneup," said David Tapp. "But we couldn't stop him."

That's because Baker thought he was going to pick up his girls.

His three daughters, Star, now 11, Summer, 9, and Skylyn, 6, were in California's care after their mother had been arrested on charges of selling and possessing methamphetamines. He was on his way to get them and bring them back to Florida.

It was a mission that would have him stopped twice for speeding while he tried to make a court date -- a mission that would eventually take nine months of criss-crossing the country and jumping through whatever hoops he had to to prove he was worthy.

* * *

David Baker was no angel. He's the first to admit it.

He was 13, a child of divorce, when he was kicked out of school in Ohio "for fighting and stuff."

Baker hitchhiked to his grandparents' home in California and moved in. He got a job as a carnival worker when wanderlust took hold.

"He hitchhiked everywhere," said his sister, Taunya Tapp. "It was a big deal when we got a phone call from him on Thanksgiving or something because we never knew where he was."

At 21, Baker enlisted in the Army and got his high school equivalency. He was discharged 31/2 years later "for drugs and alcohol."

He would eventually land in Cosa Mesa, Calif., where he fell in love with Rose Zuccala and methamphetamines. He was arrested once for possession in 1995.

"It's not that I liked it," Baker said. "I loved it."

They had three daughters while continuing a lifestyle that revolved around drugs.

By 1997, Baker was estranged from Zuccala and going downhill fast. About a year later, he finally called his sister.

"A police officer friend told me I needed to straighten up and he told me to move -- to get away from all the people I was hanging around," Baker said.

The day after Christmas, Baker stepped off a bus in Florida.

"He was like 120 pounds," said Tapp. "I just started bawling. I couldn't believe how terrible he looked."

Baker, who said he quit drugs "cold turkey," was on his way to getting his act together -- some nine months into sobriety and 40 pounds heavier -- when he got the news that California child welfare workers had taken his daughters from their mother and put them in foster care. He was determined to get custody.

* * *

When it came time for the first court hearing, Baker decided to level. He told the judge about his old drug habit.

"I could have lied, but at the time my kids were at stake," he said. "They would have found out I was in jail for drugs. Why be in denial?"

He returned home childless.

The court placed Star, Summer and Skylyn with a foster family and set stipulations for him to gain custody: random drug testing, a drug and alcohol treatment program, parenting classes and psychiatric treatment. When his daughters' case worker suggested that giving up smoking might help his chances, he did, getting the patch and taking up cross-stitch to keep his mind and hands occupied.

"The way I look at it, these are your kids," Baker said. "Whatever they ask you to do, you're going to do to get them back -- you're going to jump through hoops."

During visits with his daughters, Baker always seemed to be picking the brains of their foster parents, Johnny and Lisa Hall.

"We kind of bonded," Mrs. Hall said. "He just wanted it so bad. He wanted so bad to become who he needed to become."

When it came time to testify, the Halls were pulling for Baker.

"I was praying for him," Mrs. Hall said. "I knew he was spending money he didn't have to come see the girls. When he told the girls he would call, he did. We really wanted him to get custody. We didn't think the mom was ready (to take the girls back), and we knew David would do anything to make it work."

* * *

Baker and his daughters have been living together for more than two years now and recently settled into a three-bedroom rental home in Port Richey.

They live on Baker's $9 an hour salary as a punch-out man for Costa Homes and $186 per month in food stamps. The girls have Medicaid, and Baker is enrolled in a federal program to help him save for a down payment on a house.

He keeps a mound of paperwork that charts his progress over these past few years -- psychiatric reports and drug test results, parenting class receipts, case worker reports and court papers, including the order granting him custody.

He was threatened with the loss of his daughters once in October 2000 when the Florida Department of Children and Families was late in paying $1,200 in back rent for Baker, who had been overwhelmed with the expense of traveling back and forth to California. One of the provisions of custody was for Baker to provide housing for his daughters.

He called state Rep. Heather Fiorentino.

After checking with DCF, Fiorentino's office intervened. "We asked them to hurry and help this man so he wouldn't lose his kids," Fiorentino said.

A few days later, says Baker, "The check came in the mail."

* * *

Baker's daughters say they enjoy their new life with their father.

"It's hot, but I get my own room," said 11-year-old Star. "It's better than California. (Dad) tells us this is our house. We can have our friends sleep over, but none of his friends will ever sleep over."

While 6-year-old Skylyn has flourished in school, Star and Summer have struggled.

Even so, both were honored with perfect attendance awards for the past school year.

"I think we should pin a medal of honor on this man" said Josephine Hernandez, the site manager at Calusa Elementary School's day care program. The girls attend mornings and afternoons during the school year and all day during school breaks while Baker is at work.

Baker has become known for being a concerned father, Hernandez said. She said he packs nutritious lunches, has his daughters signed up for reading enhancement classes and makes sure their homework gets done.

"It's tough being a single parent," said Hernandez, "Raising three girls is even tougher."

Still, Baker has embraced the task.

"My brother is unbelievable -- all the accomplishments he has made,"' said his sister Taunya. "He takes those girls everywhere. He really has a purpose now. He has changed his whole life."

Baker's life these days revolves around Girl Scout and Brownie meetings, the neighborhood swimming pool, Saturday morning family woodworking projects at Home Depot, free concerts and activities at local parks. At Friday night auctions, he picks up household furnishings for a song. At Wal-Mart, Baker is often seen carting coupons and weekly circulars to get the best bargains.

He's also a good cook, Star said.

"Well I've gotten better," Baker said. "The first time I made meatloaf it came out real soupy. I cooked it for 3 1/2 hours trying to dry it out."

One of his specialties, Star said, is stuffed bell peppers.

Those are served at the kitchen table Baker fashioned from leftover tile and wood scraps and eaten only after the family prayer is sung in unison.

"Life now is very different," Baker said. "I made mistakes. Sometimes I get angry with myself about my past. But I'm not ashamed of my past. I can only do something about now and the future. What keeps me going is my daughters. My life revolves around my kids."

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