At the end of a dirt road southeast of Rock Hill sits the last mobile home of a bunch of mobile homes. On the afternoon of Jan. 10, York County Sheriff's Office deputies Chad Davis and Jonathan Reed were dispatched to escort social services to investigate a report of an 8-year-old living without electricity. They knocked on the dented door. No lights shone in the windows.
The door opened.
"The first thing we see is the parents in their winter coats, indoors," said Davis, 39, with 13 years on the job as a deputy. "The bare floor was just plywood. There wasn't much furniture. There wasn't much anything."
Reed, 26, six years on the job, saw the only light: A construction light rigged to a generator. There was a cord that would be moved from the refrigerator to two tiny space heaters, to the light, depending on what needed to be run.
The bathtub was partially filled with water which was used to flush the toilet. There were holes in the floors, the walls, the ceilings, from where a thief long ago had ripped copper wires.
"It was hard to look at it," said Reed, who is built like a kick boxer and has a jaw like Dick Tracy. Davis, his partner, is well over 6 feet tall, far over 200 pounds. It takes a lot to knock these two guys back a step.
But each recoiled.
This was home for Sara Barnstable, 28, her 40-year-old longtime boyfriend Juan Mata-Montes, the father of their 1-year-old daughter, Maddisyn, and her 8-year-old son, Matthew.
The officers looked through the house, as they are required to do. The rest of the mobile home was no better.
The officers called dispatch and had records run on both parents. They found no criminal record in the state, no outstanding warrants, according to state records. Nothing wrong - except poverty.
They heard how Mata-Montes's work dried up, how the power bill had risen to $576 before it was shut off. How the old mobile home, and another beside it, were purchased as fixer-uppers from a legal settlement after Juan was hit by a car. The couple found the property online, and figured a move from Charlotte to the rural outskirts of Rock Hill was their only chance at the dream of home ownership.
The cops then heard how the money ran out as the economy tanked, how Juan was unable to make repairs, and how the family ran out of hope.
Barnstable begged the cops not to take her kids. Mata-Montes begged the cops not to take the kids. The couple said they knew people in Charlotte, but didn't know if the conditions would be any better.
Davis, the senior officer, said he's had to take many children from homes over the years, and never saw a couple beg, with love in their eyes and faces, as Sara and Juan did.
"It was clear they loved the kids," said Davis.
"They were more distraught, not angry at us," said Reed. "You could see it was they were down on their luck. They didn't try to hide anything."
But the choice was clear, the officers said. The kids could not stay in a home without a working toilet, without electricity with a cold snap looming, holes in the walls.
Barnstable was crying, and Mata-Montes , feeling less than a man, was defeated. The couple told the kids leaving with the DSS worker for emergency foster care to treat it as a sleep-over, a trip.
"We told them to make it fun - we didn't want the kids to be scared - they had never been away from us, ever," said Barnstable.
Mata-Montes, a native of a Mexico which has a long, well-documented history of police corruption, saw his children taken away by police. He shook and was physically sick.
"I though the worst - they were gone forever," he said.
The authorities gave the couple a list of things that must be fixed - the heat, the water, the holes, floor coverings - before the kids could possibly be returned.
The kids waved from the window of the DSS vehicle and were taken away.
The couple did not moan and complain or lodge a complaint about cops barging into their house. By lamplight and gas lamp, all through the night Jan. 10 into Jan. 11, They worked next to each other patching the holes in the floor and walls and ceilings.
They did not know that during the night, Davis and Reed had talked it over several times: They were going to help the family who seemed so different from other families. They asked their shift lieutenant, David Frye, who has spent 30-plus years as a volunteer firefighter helping strangers as well as policing.
"Go ahead, I will back you up and we all will," Frye told them. "We help people in this job."
Davis's mother recommended some people he might call. One of those couples was Cathy and Larry Adams - Davis had never met them.
In the morning, the couple drove to get carpet and linoleum from a second-hand supply house. Davis on his day off, drove to the mobile home and found it empty.
"I thought maybe then I had misread them, that they just took off and were happy the kids were gone," Davis said.
Davis left a card with cell numbers for himself and Cathy and Larry Adams. Barnstable, came home and found the card and called Davis and Larry Adams. They all met at the mobile home again.
"I was stunned," Barnstable said. "They wanted to help us."
"I was stunned at how much work had already been done," said Davis. "They worked all night. You could see the results."
Cathy Adams took it upon herself to get the power bill paid so the electricity could be turned back on. Larry Adams and Davis worked alongside Barnstable and Mata-Montes , all day and into the night, fixing walls and laying flooring.
"I knew this woman loved her children, was in a bad situation but trying, when she went outside and was washing dishes by hand at an outdoor sink," said Adams, a longtime paramedic. "I watched Juan work like a dog until we left. He was still working that Wednesday night long after dark."
The house, late Wednesday night into the wee hours of Thursday morning, Jan. 12, was fixed somewhat. The water was on, the power on, the heat on. The Adams's brought food from home.
On Thursday Jan. 12, first thing in the morning, was the emergency protective custody hearing at the York County Family Court.
Instead of a foe, Barnstable and Mata-Montes had on the other side of the courtroom two officers explaining the incredible things that had happened in the previous 48 hours.
They showed up at that hearing without a single dollar left, wearing the only clean clothes they had.
The officers told DSS workers that the mobile home was fixed to a large extent. They told everybody, including a family court judge who would make the final decision, that they had never seen such love from parents who had their kids taken away, nor such hard work immediately after an emergency removal. The family had met the requirements for getting the kids back, all agreed. The judge ruled the kids could be returned.
"This was never a case of neglect - this was a case of being poor and fixing it up," said Lt. Mike Baker, a sheriff's office spokesman. "They were not charged with any crime. The kids were taken because of the condition of the home."
DSS is continuing to follow up with the family and make sure that all requirements for living conditions are met, said Yvonne Stewart, York County DSS director.
Everybody left - to go work on the house some more.
By Thursday afternoon, a DSS transport van pulled up with the kids. The kids found all these people still working, including the police who had taken them out of the house two days earlier. Work was being done on plumbing, and electrical service. They found a water pump line without a shut-off switch which caused such a high utility bill in the first place.
A new sink and vanity - using money donated by Adams' family - was installed by the group. No more washing dishes outside.
That was not the end. At the urging of Davis and Reed, Frye the lieutenant from the sheriff's office sent out an e-mail to all in the department, and others in the county emergency services, about the needs of the family.
"The outpouring after was unbelievable," said Reed. "Huge."
Davis said there was so much stuff donated, truckloads, that it couldn't be counted anymore. High chairs and bedding and food, and beds and money and love.
Barnstablesaid, "I can't describe the love I was shown - we were shown."
There was donated money for the couple's truck that broke down. Larry Adams, the former stranger turned almost family member, whose family gave money and hard work and still is doing so, said the whole experience was, "where hearts come together."
The relationship has not ended. The deputies and Adams are raising money for underpinning for the mobile home.
"Never have I been treated so nice," said Juan Mata-Montes, who does construction work when it can be found. Part of the settlement money he received was for a used Bobcat grader and scaffolding and other construction tools.
What was offered to her family was more than money, food, labor, said Barnstable.
"They also offered their friendship, and still are offering that to us," she said. "How can we thank so many people, strangers, who helped us? They did it out of love. How can we thank these policemen. We are so grateful."
Reed and Davis said the help started with them, but did not end with them.
"All we wanted to do was help a family stand on their own feet," Davis said.
The sheriff's office is proud of these deputies, who are the latest example of going beyond the call of duty, said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant. The deputies did their jobs by taking the kids initially, Bryant said, putting the safety of the children first, then offered to help the family fix the problem.
"Sometimes people have a wrong impression, that we are about brute force or that we are robo-cops," Bryant said. "Our men and women face extreme danger each day. They do not know, on a call, what is on the other side of that door. These officers showed they can do the job, then show their love for fellow man."
The officers and the family all stood together this week, for a picture outside the mobile home. The cops tousled the hair of the 8-year-old boy, Matthew, and asked him about school. The cops held and hugged Maddisyn, the 1-year-old. They shook hands with the parents.
They talked about going to the movies together, this afternoon - Sunday.
"As friends," said Davis, the policeman. "That's what friends do."