Annabelle Goldstein, 11, whispers to her mom, Carmen, during the Adoption Day ceremony Nov. 22 at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. The whole family was excited to be adopting baby Sara-Grace.
CLEARWATER – The Goldstein family of Odessa already have four biological children, but they have the big house and the big car, they love kids and wanted to do more. Timothy and Kimberly Nall are in their 50s, but they’ve known for years that they wanted to help more kids after their biological kids were grown. Douglas and Joanna Whitacre wanted to give their grandchildren a stable, forever family and a place to call home. Joanne and Gary Sastamoinen love children and have always wanted them, but when they couldn’t have biological children, they realized there were plenty of other kids who need loving parents.
All of these families and more celebrated Pinellas County’s National Adoption Day Ceremony on Nov. 22 at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. Once a year in November, the courts open their doors to the press so the public can witness one of the happiest things the courts do – finalize adoptions.
In the United States, there are about 104,000 foster children who are available for adoption. Of those, 750 are in Florida, and 225 are in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties alone. Eckerd Community Alternatives oversees all of these foster kids and adoptions in these three counties, and in addition to the kids waiting to be adopted, there are also currently more than 6,000 other children in foster care who are not yet available for adoption.
The Goldstein family
In a time when the average American household averages only 2.58 people, according to the 2010 Census, and families with children average about two kids, David and Carmen Goldstein already are considered to have a large family. They have four biological children: Annabelle, age 11; Wesley, 9; Landon, 6; and Juliette, 4. However, they still have a lot more love to give.
“My wife’s pregnancies were hard,” David said. “But we knew that God wanted us to have more children because he gave us the means. He gave us the big house, the big vehicle, so we just call it God’s calling.”
Therefore, the Goldsteins started taking the MAPP fostering classes through Eckerd in January, and their first placement was Sara-Grace, who was only 12 days old at the time, Carmen said.
“We knew immediately (that she was the right fit for their family,)” Carmen said. “No question.”
Sara-Grace was later released for adoption when her biological parents’ parental rights were terminated, so the Goldsteins began the process of adopting her. Meanwhile, they took in other foster children, and are also in the process of adopting a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. The girl is already living with the family, and the boy is the baby’s older brother, David said.
“He’s in medical foster care,” David said. “He’s 2, and when he gets out, we’re going to get him and start the adoption process. So we’ll stop at seven (kids) for a little while. Get the house adjusted.”
David said God gave him and his wife the energy and spiritual, physical and emotional ability to parent, so it is just a given to them that they will help and parent as many kids as they can.
“He hasn’t taken that ability away yet, so we will continue to serve the best we can,” David said. “(It’s important these kids have) stability and siblings. I think siblings are very important. They teach you a lot. Teamwork, cooperation, respect, compromise. And then, love. That’s a big one. Siblings provide security.”
Even presiding Judge Patrice W. Moore was impressed by the family’s big hearts and also made the courtroom laugh with some good-natured teasing. The Goldsteins officially adopted Sara-Grace on Adoption Day, who is now 6 months old.
“To you, I say thank you,” Moore said with a big smile. “Thank you for your willingness. And dad, good luck with four girls. You’re smiling today, but I’d like to see you when they hit their pre-teens and their teens. Remember this special day and how they’re making you feel today. Because it’s coming. But it would be my pleasure to finalize this adoption.”
The Nall family
Timothy Nall, 57, and his wife, Kimberly, 52, had kids when they were young, and later knew they also wanted to adopt as well. Friends recommended waiting until their kids were adults, and now that time has come. They started by fostering, but they knew they wanted to have a child become a permanent part of their family, so they started searching the Heart Gallery websites. The Heart Gallery, www.heartgallerykids.org, is both an online and a traveling exhibit of photos and brief stories of children who are available for adoption. There, the Nalls found Jazmine.
Jazmine was then 13, but she had been in foster care since she was 28 months old. In all that time, she had numerous foster care placements and a few potential adoptions that all fell through. Her case manager said Jazmine had become jaded and was leery about anyone who said they were thinking about adopting her.
“We had really been leaning toward adopting a child and one who had been in care for a while,” Kimberly said. “Her name came back to me, so I found her again.”
It was a little complicated getting to meet Jazmine, since she was being fostered in Pinellas County but the Nalls live in Lakeland, but eventually they were able to make it work.
“We took her to Chuck E. Cheese for her birthday, and her case manager was a little afraid that she would be not interested at all,” Kimberly said. “But on the second visit, she jumped from the car and ran to us, gave us her Heart Gallery picture. We’ve had very positive experiences since.”
Older kids, especially teenagers like Jazmine, who is now 14, can be especially hard to place in permanent homes. About 62 percent of children in the Tampa Bay area who are available for adoption are between 13 and 17 years old, according to Eckerd statistics.
“We felt like it was a calling for us individually, but the older kids need an opportunity to have a future,” Kimberly said. “To have that family to come back to. We personally felt better equipped for an older child as opposed to a younger one. We really just hated the thought of kids aging out and having no one. There are so many of them doing that these days.”
Jazmine held her new parents close to her and said she’s happy that she finally has a forever home. She added that she likes that they bring her to play on the playground and that she has new older siblings. One of them has a house with a pool, and she loves going swimming there. She thinks her new parents are pretty great, too.
“They’re nice,” Jazmine said, “and funny. And they like giving me hugs.”
Jazmine said she hopes other kids in foster care find families and have good lives and that they don’t give up hope.
Her new older brother, Josh Nall, and his young son, Ethan, joined the family for the Adoption Day celebration. Josh said it was exciting that Jazmine was going to officially be part of their family.
The Whitacre family
Douglas and Joanna Whitacre of Tampa were glad to complete their first of two adoptions on Adoption Day. They finally were able to officially adopt their biological grandson, Kyler William Whitacre, who is 7. They are also in the process of adopting their other 5-year-old grandson who is Kyler’s cousin.
“It’s a great day,” Douglas said. “We’ve been going through some legal problems for a while, so we are glad that it’s finalized. We’re elated that this day is finally here.”
Joanna agreed, saying they’ve had a long road, but she’s so happy the day finally has arrived when Kyler is theirs forever. She said she’s grateful for all the people and agencies who worked hard to get them to this point, including their Guardian Ad Litem, Vaughn Haight of St. Petersburg.
“I’m very happy that Kyler has his forever home, and Joanna and Douglas are excellent parents, and they’ve done such a great job over the last couple of years taking care of Kyler,” Haight said. “They’re very loving and give him all the things that he needs to be a well-adjusted little boy.”
It is so important that Kyler now has permanence in his life, Haight said.
Judge Moore watched the two boys playing together at the front of the courtroom – playing with a toy car, ducking under the table – and commented on the boys’ close proximity in age. And their abundance of energy. Smiling, she asked the Whitacres if they can handle the bundles of energy, to which they happily agreed that they could.
The Sastamoinen family
Joanne and Gary Sastamoinen of St. Pete Beach weren’t adopting their newest two children until Dec. 5 in Pasco County, but their story has touched many people at Eckerd, so they were asked to share their adoption experience as an official part of the Adoption Day program.
Joanne grew up in England and came to America to be a nurse. She loved it so much that she came back permanently with a job at a children’s hospital. She worked her way up to nurse practitioner and in 2011, she moved to Florida. She met Gary because they attended the same church and he was known to house-sit for people. When Joanne had family coming from England and needed a house-sitter, she used Gary and a few months later they were married, he said.
Both Gary and Joanne always loved children and wanted some of their own, but when they were unable to do so biologically, they knew there were other ways to have kids and that many of them need loving families. They completed the necessary MAPP classes in order to become foster parents, and soon they had their first placement.
“Lucius arrived on our doorstep, big, wide-eyed and holding a tiger larger than him,” Joanne said. “And we took that tiger everywhere for two days until he was finally able to let him go and we saw his beautiful smile. Two months later we got a call about Addison who was 10 weeks old and after taking her into our home, we learned that she had two siblings that were also in the foster care system. So we didn’t want any siblings to be separated, so we asked if we could take them, too. So one afternoon, we got a minivan because our car was too small, and we drove up to Dunedin to get Carly and Aiden.”
She said they got wonderful support from Eckerd, and they also agreed that it was important to them to have strong involvement with the biological families of the children whenever possible.
“There’s a benefit to being an older father,” Gary said. “For one, if you keep the biological family involved, more than likely they’re younger than you. And if they help, it’s great.”
Lucius’s “Meemaw” has been very involved and has been to all of Lucius’s activities, as are Aiden and Addison’s grandparents, she said. The couple legally adopted Lucius in March 2012 and later also adopted Aiden and Addison. Carly was fortunately able to be reunited with her biological father up north, but she still is part of her siblings’ and the Sastamoinens’ lives. She even spent the summer with them.
At Adoption Day, the Sastamoinens said they were looking forward to officially adopting two more children, on Dec. 5 – baby Anthony, whose name will be changed to Ian, and his big brother, Damien. The Sastamoinens got Ian when he was only 2 days old and have had him ever since. They have kept the given names of all their other children, but they are shortening Anthony’s name to Ian because he has albinism and so he has eyesight difficulties, Joanne said. The shorter name will be easier for him to write. Besides, she said with a laugh, with his snow-white hair, he doesn’t look like an Italian Anthony.
The Sastamoinens encourage anyone with love in their heart to foster children. There are so many kids who need homes, Gary said. Though one can’t go into fostering with the goal to adopt, he said. It is important to do what is best for the child, and if they can be successfully reunited with their biological families, that should be the goal, he said. If adoption ends up being the better solution for the child, then that can become the next step. When it came to that stage with Aiden, he was old enough so they asked him what he wanted to do.
“With Aiden, we asked him, ‘Hey Aiden, what do you think if we adopt you?’” Gary said. “And then he just got a big smile on his face. So it was a big deal. Lucius keeps asking, ‘When’s the adoption day? When’s the adoption day?’”
All the kids in Aiden’s class signed a big card wishing him a happy Adoption Day, Gary said.
“With Addison, we got her when she was only 10 weeks old, so we’re the only mommy and daddy she’s ever known,” Joanne said. “But Aiden, he doesn’t so much know his dad, but he knows his birth mom. Sadly there isn’t contact there right now. But she’s going through her own journey, too.”
Their family is now complete – at least for now – with Lucius, who is 6, Aiden who is four months younger at age 5, Addison who is now 3, Damien who is 2 and a half, and Ian who is 16 months old.
Who can foster and adopt?
Eckerd always tells people they don’t have to be perfect to adopt. People need to be at least 21 years old and willing to commit to a child in foster care and to the process of adoption. Likewise, they don’t have to be wealthy. There is no minimum income for adopting, but one must have stable income that is sufficient to support themselves and their family. Foster and adoptive families can either own or rent their home, and there are no extra costs involved with adopting a child from foster care in Florida. People do not have to be married to be considered for adopting children – they can be married, single, divorced, widowed or in a same-sex relationship. They can either be raising children already, never parented before, or be an empty nester.
To get started, call the Eckerd Adoption Recruitment Line at 866-233-0790 or visit www.eckerd.org and sign up for a free orientation in order to learn more about available children and the adoption process. Then take Florida’s free standardized training course called MAPP (Model Approaches to Partnerships in Parenting.) Next, there will be home studies to ensure that the family and home are prepared and safe for adoption, including background checks for all members of the family, free of charge. The next step is getting matched with a child, teen or sibling group based on the parent’s strengths that meet the child’s needs. The child must live in the home for a minimum of 90 days as everyone adjusts and gets to know each other. If everything continues to go well, then the match can be legalized in court through adoption.