TAMPA — Jean Roy Jr. didn't look like father material to social workers.
The 48-year-old had a long criminal history and was struggling with substance abuse. His infatuation with the mother of his twin children was an even more damaging addiction.
Seventeen years his junior, she was an addict who used crystal meth and heroin, said Wanda Lamar, Roy's case manger.
"My first impression was (the twins) wouldn't be unified with mom and dad," Lamar said. "Mom was still in the home. Dad was still engaged with mom and shouldn't have been."
Hunter and Isabella had been on the radar of child welfare workers since their mother ran into a neighbor's house claiming she feared for her life but was unaware of where her children were. They were infants at the time. She was allowed only supervised visits with them after that.
At the age of 3, the twins were taken into foster care in February 2015 because Roy let their mother stay over. She needed somewhere to stay until a bed opened up in a rehab clinic. He couldn't say no.
Even after that, Roy couldn't close the door on her and his hope that they could be a family.
In a last-ditch attempt to reunify the twins with their father, Lamar and the children's guardian ad litem laid out his choice in stark terms. He got the same message from a judge during a hearing.
The case is dragging on too long, they told him. He could have his children or he could stay with his girlfriend.
"He had to choose between her and them," Lamar said. "He had to understand that the kids needed him more than their mom."
• • •
Roy knew what it meant to need a dad.
Born in Tampa, he was only 4 when his mother died in her sleep from a blood clot. His father, Jean Louis Roy, was a wrestler who was born in Canada. He competed on the professional circuit as Corsica Jean and did not have time to raise a young boy.
So Roy stayed with his aunt for three years and was reunited with his father only when he remarried.
But his relationship with his new stepmother was fraught. Roy started acting out at school and getting into trouble.
"I felt that my father and stepmother were happier when I wasn't there," he said.
It was a spiral that saw him go to juvenile detention when he was just 9. Later, he had to stay in group homes and, at 13, was sent to the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform home in Marianna infamous for its mistreatment of children.
He remembers being beaten until he fell asleep. Fights with other boys and teachers came almost every day.
For most of his 20s, he was in and out of prison on a series of mostly drug-related charges, including sale and possession of cocaine for which he served five years of a 10-year sentence.
He was on a four-day bender on crack when he learned that his father, who had retired to run a bar on Nebraska Avenue, had been shot dead during a 1992 robbery.
"I had authority issues. It started with my stepmother," Roy said. "Once you get exposed to detention, it's time gone after that. You become hard."
The drug arrests stopped after the birth of his first son, Jean Louis Roy III, in 2002.
He was a father. Responsibility was unfamiliar but a welcome anchor. His son still lives with him.
"I haven't been to jail since he was born," Roy said. "He saved my life."
• • •
To hear Roy tell it, Lamar was the Muhammad Ali to his Joe Frazier, a case manager who busted his chops to try to get him straight.
Physically, it was a mismatch.
He was a loud, shaven-headed 5-foot-11 mass of muscle and tattoos.
She was a small black woman working as a case manager with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.
But she had his measure.
He was required to follow a twice-weekly drug testing regime. There were also mandatory parenting classes, substance abuse counseling and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
"It wasn't as sweet as everyone claimed it to be," Lamar said of the case. "He was trying to be devious with dealings with the kids' mom and I wasn't going to let him get away with it."
Being told how to live his life rubbed Roy the wrong way. Every condition felt like a barrier.
''If we had gloves, it might have been us in the boxing ring," he said.
Roy knew how to fight. He'd learned that at juvie. At Dozier, he had a reputation.
But not a fight like this.
His twins being removed was like a punch in the gut.
It took him back to grieving for his mother and missing his dad. That was where he feared his twins were heading, he said.
"I felt for them every night having to go to sleep and having to wonder where their parents are and why did I leave them," Roy said.
The warning from the judge was the turning point, Lamar said. He knuckled down.
"After that, his whole demeanor changed," she said.
His reward was unsupervised visits with the twins. At first for two hours and, later, for up to eight.
The condition of the visits was that he stay in public. He could not take them home or to visit anyone else. The three of them mostly spent long days at the water park at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.
In July, the twins finally came home although Roy still had to follow a raft of conditions.
He had to still be drug-tested and could not have the twins around other grown-ups unless they had submitted to a background check that included fingerprinting.
Good friends melted away when he explained what they would have to do just so he and the children could come over for dinner.
"It's like having handcuffs on or being in prison in a cell," he said. "You have no control. You just have to relinquish."
• • •
Hunter and Isabella, now 5, are there every morning now.
On Sundays, they wake him up at their home north of Sulphur Springs, shouting that it's time to go to church.
He's amazed at how in tune they are with each other.
Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough County, closed his case in January.
There's no more drug testing, no more surprise visits from case managers.
He is a regular dad.
About 60 percent of parents whose children are removed get them back after taking some counseling or other action. Roy was one of roughly 780 parents reunified with their children in Hillsborough in 2016.
Eckerd Kids thought enough of Roy's turnaround that they chose him to speak at a recent reunification ceremony honoring the work done by parents and social workers.
He thanked Eckerd's family reunification team.
"If I couldn't do it they helped; if I wasn't good at it, they helped me get better," he said.
Lamar is satisfied for now that Roy is on the right track.
"When I see the kids they're happy and looking good," she said.
But Roy now lives with anxiety that at any moment there will be a knock at the door, that he could lose his kids again.
He knows he doesn't come across as a cuddly father.
His loud booming voice, a needed defense mechanism growing up, can now be a handicap.
"I've tried forever to gear that down because it's intimidating," he said.
As much as possible, he wants his children to have a normal childhood.
The thing that stuck with him the most from his parenting class is that it's not enough to tell his kids how to behave. He has to model that behavior for them.
"It stuck with me so much what kind of emotions you were taught as a child," he said. "I wasn't allowed to have emotions. I had to be hard as a rock."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.
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