Central Florida children find 'forever homes' on Adoption Day

Riley Crites, 7, with adopted “mom” grandmother Judy Crites at the National Adoption Day event held in Orlando Nov. 22. Dozens of families were officially created at the event.

Riley Crites, 7, with adopted “mom” grandmother Judy Crites at the National Adoption Day event held in Orlando Nov. 22. Dozens of families were officially created at the event.

Allison Olcsvay

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Tears brimmed in Cheryl and Richard Gonzales eyes as three solemnly spoken words helped officially turn their family of two to three on Nov. 22.

“He’s yours now,” said Orange County Judge Robert M. Evans.

“Just as if he had been born to you.”

The words marked an end to the couple’s wait and a beginning to their new life as parents as their new smiling son, 10-year-old Jayden, floated happily back to his seat behind them.

In the span of a few sentences, for the first time Jayden’s world went from one of ongoing worry to one with a secure home and two stable parents.

“Because of all the moving around he did before he came to us, he never had a place to keep his things, never had enough clothing, every time they moved he would have to start all over. Until now, Jayden never had a secure place,” Cheryl Gonzales said.

“Today because of all the hard work of the people at Children’s Home Society and DCF, Jayden has us forever and we just want to say thank you so much to all of them for helping make this possible.”

Courtrooms usually reserved as serious, somber places, instead became places of celebration on Nov. 22 for families like the Gonzales’. In honor of November’s National Adoption Month, Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties hosted special adoption ceremonies, just in time to make the brand new families “official” before the holidays.

In Orange County, the jury room was transformed into a makeshift courtroom to accommodate all the adoptive families, friends and relatives who were there to celebrate with them.

Big grins mixed with teary-eyed looks of wonder as new families glanced at each other as if for the first time. Balloons, teddy bears and cake took the place of legal briefs, gavels and stenographers.

“We’ve been a ‘family’ since April,” Cheryl said, “but something changed today. We’re no longer aunt and uncle, now we’re mommy and daddy.”

Many of the new families faced a long journey to reach this milestone. They worked their way through endless court hearings, evaluations and paperwork, all the while learning or relearning how to parent.

Quite a few of the adoptions were by family members, such as grandparents formally adopting grandchildren or in the case of the Gonzales family, aunt and uncle adopting nephew.

Judy Crites arrived at the Orange County Courthouse as Grandma and left as Mom. Her granddaughter, 7-year-old Riley was grinned over the top of her new teddy bear, as the realization that she’d never have to leave the security of her grandmother’s home again began to set in.

“It’s great to be adotted,” Riley said, lisping over her P’s through her missing two front teeth. “I’m gonna tell all my friends about being adotted.”

Riley and her two younger siblings live with their grandmothers, Judy Crites and Linda Byrd, who teamed up a year ago to share a home and the responsibilities of raising their grandchildren.

“When the need arises, you just gotta step up,” said Crites, who adopted her granddaughter to give her the security she had been craving.

“She was always afraid she would have to leave me. This way she never has to again.”

Peggi Smith of Altamonte Springs also adopted her granddaughter, 4-year-old Aaliyah during the ceremonies Nov. 22. Like Crites, Smith wanted to be able to reassure her granddaughter with the knowledge that she would always have a safe place to call home.

“Aaliyah has been with me since day one – and now it’s a blessing to know that she’s staying with us, as part of our family and our world,” Smith said.

Thirty children in the tri-county area became part of their forever families during this year’s special celebration, said Karla Radka, vice president of Community Impact for Community Based Care.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Rowland was just one of those 30, but took three sentences to sum up the universal hopefulness felt going forward for all those in her shoes.

“It makes me feel happier to be part of this family because I love them,” she said. “If I need something, they’ll give it to me. It makes me feel happy and warm inside to be adopted today.”

Over the last 10 years, 700 kids in Central Florida have found forever families through adoption. But for every child who is adopted, Radka said, there are many more who still wait to find their forever family.

Many of the new parents, like Jennifer Downs, began as foster parents and adopted children who had been placed in their care initially as foster children.

“The process to become foster parents takes about six to eight months,” Radka said. “It is a time of reflection and learning that is very valuable to the process of understanding how the system works and how best to help these children.”

Once foster parents are approved, they are matched with children in need of stable environments. Every case is different, depending on the age of the child, whether or not they are part of a sibling group and how long they are expected to need foster care.

In some cases, the children become eligible for adoption, which can take another eight to 10 months to finalize.

Seventeen-month-old Jaxon Downs won’t remember this day, but his mom will never forget it. Downs is a single mom who’s been a foster parent for two years. In that time, she has fostered seven kids.

“Jaxon was my lucky number seven,” she said.

Dressed smartly for the occasion in a brightly striped bow-tie and crisp white shirt, little Jaxon brought a lot of supporters with him, including his grandparents and his aunt and uncle – all of them excited to be part of his life as he grows up.

“He doesn’t know what this all means yet, but he knows we are here for him and that’s all that matters,” Downs said.