By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Two weeks before Christmas in 1995, Doug Houton got a handful of unexpected gifts.
The 32-year-old pediatric nurse was in the middle of his afternoon shift at Fort Lauderdale's Children's Diagnostic and Treatment Center. He was thinking about what to do for the holiday -- maybe take a vacation to see a friend in New York City, go to a few parties, catch up on some sleep. Then, he spotted a disheveled and jumpy-looking man in the waiting room. As the visitor approached, he recognized him as Oscar Williams, the father of twin babies and a three-year-old boy whom Houton had treated for two years. It was known around the ward that Williams had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and was frequently out of work.
"All of a sudden, he started telling me how he'd lost his apartment and that he didn't have any food for the kids," remembers Houton. "He kept saying, 'Here, you take the boys and give them a good Christmas.'"
Before the nurse could fully grasp what was happening, Williams had disappeared. "I thought, 'OK, I have two weeks off,'" Houton says. ""I love kids. What's a couple of weeks, you know?' That was 2 in the afternoon. By 5, I had all the kids and we were in my car heading to my house."
Two weeks passed. Then three. Then four. "I didn't know how long it was going to last, but I can tell you it was a little chaos," Houton recalls. "I mean, I go from having zero kids to three under five. Oh my God, you've never seen the freak-out I was having."
Meanwhile, Fanny and Jimmy Williams, who live in Fort Lauderdale, had been looking for their grandchildren. "We were saying to our son, to Oscar, 'Now, where are your children, Oscar?'" Fanny recalls, her voice cracking with strain. "I said, "Don't you wanna know where your babies are?' But he wouldn't tell us. When he's on that dope, ain't nothing that matters to him. He told me, 'They all right and with a nice man.'"
Eventually, Houton contacted the Williamses through a social worker at the clinic. Although the grandparents barely knew Houton, having talked to him only twice at the clinic, they were comfortable with him caring for their grandchildren. "I knew he seemed like a nice man," Fanny says.
A couple of weeks later, Fanny and Jimmy went to Houton's Fort Lauderdale home, intending to pick up all three boys. But the couple, both in their 70s, took only the twins. They left Oscar Jr. because the toddler was too "out of control."
"Nothing we could have handled," the grandmother sighs. "He would bang his head against the wall and throw fits. We liked the babies because they quieter."
Once again, Houton did what he felt he had to do. "The grandparents didn't get [Oscar] for whatever reason, but I knew I wasn't going to abandon him," says Houton. "He was sort of my responsibility at that point, and I just accepted that because it just felt very right." Houton pauses, and his blue eyes narrow.
Still in his scrubs from work, he's sitting on the bleachers at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Miami, watching Oscar's skinny legs speed down the basketball court. Oscar, now ten, looks up at Houton a lot, no doubt for reassurance that he will end his first season of pee-wee ball victoriously.
"My friends thought I was nuts," Houton admits, "that I'd completely lost my mind when this began. Most of us were in our late 20s and early 30s. But I also had money, a stable life, a stable job. You can say fate or whatever, but sometimes your life just presents these roads to you, and I felt like I was prepared and that I was meant to have him."
But Houton, who applied for, and was granted, legal guardianship of Oscar in 1996, quickly realized that raising the boy would be demanding. Born to a crack-addicted mother who often left her infant children alone for days at a time, Oscar had been severely physically abused. His mother once burned the toddler with an iron so bad that he had to be hospitalized. For that, a judge found her guilty of neglect, took custody from her, and gave it to Oscar Sr. But the little boy's father wasn't going to win any parenting awards either, say Jimmy and Fanny Williams.
"We went over to his apartment once, and it was all dirty, dark, just real depressing. The kids hadn't been fed for a long time, we could tell," says Fanny. Referring to Oscar Sr.'s drug use, she continues, "My son was just having one of his fits. Oh my goodness, it was awful, because little Oscar looked like he was about dead. That child couldn't have weighed more than 20 pounds."
When Houton first brought Oscar Jr. home, the child had barely a 25-word vocabulary. The emotional trauma he had endured left him prone to long crying jags, sadness, insecurity, and an extreme fear of abandonment. Houton needed help. So he called his mother, a former second-grade schoolteacher, and his sister, who specializes in developmental disorders at an upstate New York clinic. Houton paired their advice with his own learn-as-you-go parenting skills, reading to Oscar twice a day and taking him to experts in developmental disorders.