Albert Gray wears a T-shirt that reads “Dads Against Daughters Dating” and a ball cap with a pirate logo. He smiles easily and his two children, Sylvia, 10, and Stephen, 8, crawl all over him every chance they get.
At Chattaroy Elementary School, Sylvia and Stephen get all A and B grades, go to track meets and enter coloring contests. Together with their stepmother, Heather Gray, the family lives in a trailer park in Riverside, and on the surface they seem just like everybody else.
No one can tell that it took a court battle and a long cross-country trip before they finally got to be together. And no one can tell that Stephen is terminally ill.
Stephen has Fanconi anemia, the same genetic disorder that caused the death of his older brother, Albert Jr., in 2000. His prognosis is bleak though he is doing well now.
“It’s a disease that mimics leukemia,” Heather Gray said. “He’s not expected to live past 12.”
The family recently returned from a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip to Disneyland, the first fun trip the four of them have taken together, and the children are eager to show pictures and share stories from rides and exhibits.
“Make-A-Wish was giving Albert a trip, too, but he died before he could go,” Albert Gray said, pausing. “It means so much that we got to go this time.”
The last trip the family took together was the long drive from Florida to Riverside.
The family van still has a Florida Gators license plate frame, but that’s the only visual reminder of the state where Albert Gray undertook a yearlong battle to get custody of his children.
When Stephen was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia in 2007, his parents were still married and living in Florida.
“He was 2 years old and he was pooping blood clots,” Albert Gray said. “I took him to the hospital.”
Stephen was transferred to the University of Florida Hospital in Gainesville, where he was diagnosed.
By the end of 2007, Albert Gray’s marriage to Stephen’s mother was falling apart.
“She blamed me for Albert’s death because I was there at the hospital when he died,” Albert Gray said. He tears up talking about his oldest son. “I miss him every day.”
Soon after leaving Florida, Albert Gray lost touch with his children. He got occasional updates from family and friends, but that was it.
By February 2010, Albert Gray was in the Spokane-area and he was getting more and more worried about his children.
“I called the child abuse hotline in Florida and asked them to go check on my kids,” Albert Gray said.
He got a call back that a home visit had been made and social workers assured him his children were fine.
The relief he felt was short-lived.
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Two weeks later he got another call from authorities in Florida, this time telling him that the children’s mother and her boyfriend had been arrested on domestic violence and drug charges.
Stephen and Sylvia had been placed in foster care. Their mother was in jail.
“That day we got in the car and started driving to Florida,” Albert Gray said. “There was nothing else to do. I wanted my kids.” But it wasn’t that simple.
With Stephen and Sylvia in foster care, Albert and Heather Gray set up home in Florida and began the slow process of proving to authorities that they were fit parents. They sold everything they owned and rented out their modest trailer home in Riverside to pay for it all.
“And my folks helped us,” Heather Gray said. “They put money in our checking account. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The first custody hearing was in March 2010; a few days later Albert Gray was waiting at a park to see his children for the first time in a year.
“I was so nervous,” Albert Gray said. “Their mom told the judge the kids didn’t want to see me, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
But once Sylvia and Stephen saw their dad they lunged at him.
“It was the greatest day,” Albert Gray said, tears running down his face. “They loved me. They didn’t hate me.”
Stephen was very ill and on the waiting list for a stem cell transplant, which he received in November 2010.
At the time, he was still in foster care. The Grays have nothing but good things to say about the foster parents, with whom they are still in contact.
“The foster mom was with Stephen every day the whole time he was in the hospital,” Albert Gray said. “They are wonderful, wonderful people.”
Finally, in 2011, Sylvia and Stephen were allowed to move in with the Grays, but the family had to remain in Florida so Child Protective Services there could do probationary checkups on the family.
It took until June 2012 before the family, having satisfied officials in both states, was free to travel back to Washington.
“I wanted to go home so badly,” Heather Gray said. “I just couldn’t wait. We left as soon as we could.”
And now they are putting their lives back together.
The Grays said both children experienced physical abuse at the hands of their mother’s boyfriend. Yet considering the years of turmoil and moving around, both children are doing well, they said.
Heather Gray said Stephen sometimes gets really angry at his mom, who’s in prison.
“When he says he hates his mom, I try to talk him out of it,” Heather Gray said, adding that Sylvia also struggles with feelings about her mother. “She gets really confused sometimes. We answer their questions the best we can.”
And life goes on.
Heather Gray is pregnant and due in August. A car seat and a new crib sit on the living room floor.
Stephen and Sylvia are looking forward to summer vacation, hoping they will get to go camping and fishing.
“And I want to play softball,” Stephen said. They are hoping to find a team that will let him play in spite of his health issues.
“Stephen is doing well for now; he’s growing and he’s looking good,” Albert Gray said. “That kid, he’s like a leprechaun – he’s got so much luck. Maybe he’ll beat it.”