"I don't want to force them to call me Dad. Whatever they want to call me, they can call me—as long as it's nothing bad. In the beginning, Chris would say, 'You are not my father.' This weekend, he kept saying, 'Dad, Dad, Dad.' It just rolled off his tongue, which was kind of cool. Then George said, 'No, it's Joey.'"
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!"
"Taking care of Christopher is gigantic. He used to go a couple of times a week for physical therapy; now he goes every three months for an evaluation. And every six months he goes to a spina bifida clinic; I take the day off, unpaid. Then there are other doctor appointments, ultrasounds for the bladder. I try not to dwell on it. I can't change it. I love Chris the way he is."
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."