Uncle becomes dad to five, meets his biggest challenge yet
By GABRIELLE PORTER
Jul. 29, 2017
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — Most men don't start their path to fatherhood at age 36, single, technically homeless, with four traumatized children and one toddler who during her waking hours can't be set down.
David Watkins took the path less traveled.
Nearly six years ago, the then-36-year-old was footloose and fancy-free. He had recently moved to Portland, Oregon, putting more than 1,000 miles between himself and most of his family, including his unstable sister and her five children.
Watkins was searching for a job, ready to make the West Coast his home, when he got a call from his mother back in Mesa County. His sister's family dysfunction had reached a breaking point and the kids were being removed from the home by authorities, she told him. While Watkins' mother was terminally ill, she had decided to take in her four youngest grandchildren and give them a new life.
"I was on the plane the next morning," Watkins said.
Now 41, Watkins on Monday finalized his adoption of his sister's five children. But six years ago, he really only knew his eldest niece and nephew, Corinne and Ethan. He'd never seen his youngest nieces, twins Abigail and Zoe, and had only met middle brother Sebastian once. But Watkins threw himself into caring for the children, who had all suffered abuse and neglect while in the care of their mother and her various boyfriends, according to case documents.
When the children's grandmother was placed in hospice care in Montana, Watkins was faced with a choice. Really, though, it wasn't much of a choice — he had promised his mother he would care for the children like his own, and he never looked back.
"It was like, OK, I'll take the kids," Watkins said. "(The county) gave me four kids with no car, no job and no home."
The kids came with their own challenges. Pre-teen Ethan was defiant and angry, and later ran into trouble with the law. Toddler Zoe was non-verbal, and expected to stay that way because of her cerebral palsy.
"Her therapist said she would never walk, she would never be verbal," Watkins said.
Watkins worried Zoe had never bonded with her "caretakers" before. For two months, he held her during her every waking moment. At first, she panicked when she was set down.
As Watkins lavished time on Zoe, he fretted over Abigail, the twin with no physical disability. Would she feel less valued? Would she feel unloved?
While teenager Corinne didn't live with Watkins, she stayed in her siblings' lives even while bouncing around the country, occasionally homeless but trying to live with various family members in Texas and Montana.
What does Watkins remember from those first few months?
Late Monday morning, Watkins walked into his Grand Junction kitchen dressed in a suit, a blue and navy tie around his neck and several more in hand.
"Snap a picture of me wearing this?" he asked Corinne, who sat at the dining room table looking at her phone. "This I thought was very cool, classic."
The now-22-year-old obliged, telling her uncle he looked like a lawyer.
"You're about to go win a case," Corinne said.
"We are about to go win a case," Watkins answered.
Abigail, 8, already dressed in a new black dress, got up from an ottoman where she had been lying upside-down watching "Hotel Transylvania" and tugged on Watkins' shirt, gesturing at several brand-new Star Wars-themed Lego boxes sitting on the living room floor.
"Can we open the Lego sets now?" Abigail asked.
"Nope," Watkins said firmly. "Those are for after the adoption."
Watkins and his clan have come a long way. Watkins is back to working in his original field of house design, the family is no longer "squatting" in Watkins' mother's house, and their new home is down the street from a park.
Corinne aspires to a grand career path that includes mortician, mechanical engineer and heart surgeon. The 22-year-old beauty school student — who before court sported curls dyed in a Cruella De Vil color scheme — said her friends have been asking her lately whether at 22 and with an apartment of her own she isn't past prime adoption age. No, she said. It's Watkins who has been there for her. It's Watkins who will walk her down the aisle when she gets married.
"Whose idea is it that anybody is too old to have a father who cares for them?" Corinne said. "I've always wanted that, my whole life."
Ethan, 17, is working through his issues with the law, and hopes to finish high school and travel the world.
Sebastian at 11 is relentlessly positive about his looming transition to middle school.
"There's a lot of people telling me middle school isn't fun, but I'm going to make it as fun as possible," he said, grinning. "Who cares about bullies? Maybe something's happening at that home."
Abigail and Zoe both love to hang on Watkins' arm, wearing matching megawatt smiles. Today Zoe can both walk and — with a little interpretation help at times — talk in full sentences.
Watkins sees himself not as just a parent but as a coach whose goal is to be emotionally available to Corinne, Ethan, Sebastian, Abigail and Zoe.
"My job really is to rehabilitate," he said. "With . a lot of patience, a lot of love."
Yes, Watkins said, it is a sacrifice to parent five children at once. He always wanted to have his own children, but never found the right woman.
But, he said, "I'm happy to make that sacrifice."
On Monday afternoon — after a lunch at Dream Cafe and with the as-of-yet unopened celebratory Lego kits tantalizing back home — the family queued up outside Courtroom Five at the Mesa County Justice Center.
At about 1:15 p.m., the courtroom doors opened.
In a few minutes, Mesa County District Judge Valerie Robison would be smiling at Watkins and his quintet of kids, crowded around a table. Watkins would be telling the judge about his mother, how she did everything she could for the children while she was alive.
Robison would be informing each child, one at a time, that they now had all the rights, privileges and responsibilities as if they were Watkins' natural-born child.
Corinne and Ethan would fist-bump, before Ethan would bury his head in his hands. Sebastian's smile would be almost unthinkably wide, and Abigail would dodge her face behind a tissue box and grab her new dad's hand. Zoe would bring a laugh to the courtroom by throwing both arms in the air and cheering.
Information from: The Daily Sentinel, http://www.gjsentinel.com