TAMPA — With a gallery of overstuffed Teddy bears and puppy dogs perched atop the judge’s bench, a stream of adoptions — 22 in all — were finalized amid cheers and tears and applause at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse on Friday morning.
The normally hushed, darkened and stodgy lobby of the chief judge’s chambers and administrative offices on the sixth floor was transformed into a bright, jubilant place. There were hugs and laughter, face painting and food and a small room set aside for newly minted families to pose for portraits.
Each November, adoption advocates in Hillsborough County and around the state stage grand adoption spectacles to celebrate National Adoption Day. Tampa’s event Friday was one of about 30 similar ceremonies taking place this month in Florida.
One by one, the adoptive parents streamed into the courtroom and answered formal questions like, “Will you be a suitable parent to this child?”
They left with a family that was a little bit larger, swelled by new fresh faces, most of whom were eager to try on their new last names.
The questioning ended with beaming judges signing the final orders and asking the new families to come up behind the bench for a photo.
Sarah Davis is no stranger to the process. She’s done this before.
A 46-year-old single mom with no biological children, Davis adopted two children, Vanessa, now 10, and her year-younger sister, Gracie, five years ago. On Friday, Davis made siblings Ceinna, 9, Michael, 7, and Dominic, 5, new members of her family. All the kids call her Mom.
“This,” she said, “is the path I have chosen.”
She has fostered her children before adopting them. Fostering, she said had its own set of risks, like the ever-present chance the children will go to biological parents or other adoptive parents.
“There is always drama,” she said, “but always love.”
Is there room for more in the Davis household?
“The inn is full,” she said, her five children crowded around her. “But, you never know what life will throw at you. You never know.”
She tugged the children into the courtroom and waited until they were called up before Circuit Judge Elizabeth Rice, who warned that she may shed a tear or two along the way.
As she signed the papers for the new Davis family, she said, “This is now formalized. This is now finalized. These children now have their forever home.”
The 22 children were made new members of just over a dozen families Friday morning, said Lorita Shirley, with Eckerd Community Alternatives, which supervises the adoption process in Hillsborough County.
“They came in as individuals and they will be leaving as families,” she said. “We’re so excited to see that. We know there is no such thing as unwanted children; only un-found families.”
Jalen Gibson entered the foster care system when he was 7 and now, at 18, he recently was adopted by his foster parents, who first met him as mentors. He said he recognizes that adoptive parents are taking risks every time they take a child into their home.
Jalen spent more than half his life in foster care, shuffled between homes and caregivers. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age, he is upbeat and said he wants one day to be a motivational speaker.
He met Albert and Lisette McClinton when he was 16. Two years later, during the week he turned 18, the McClintons legally adopted Jalen.
“I’m so proud of parents who take chances on these youths,” Jalen said in a keynote address to the crowd of more than 100 people. “It shows you have faith in us and are willing to take that chance.”