Saira Maynard, 5, and her sister, Kindra, 4, sit on Melissa Maynard’s lap as she talks to family friend, Melody Hooks of Safety Harbor at Adoption Day Nov. 12 at the Clearwater Criminal Justice Center.
CLEARWATER – No longer will they have to worry about not having a place to come home to during the holidays or not having someone to walk them down the aisle.
They don’t have to worry about switching schools constantly or bouncing from temporary home to temporary home.
At least 12 kids finally got forever homes on National Adoption Day, Nov. 13, as five families adopted them at ceremonies at the Clearwater Criminal Justice Center.
These children were foster kids through Eckerd Community Alternatives, but there also were other kids who were adopted that day through other agencies.
Adoption Day is the one time each year where the courts open up to media and the public, said April Putzulu, communications manager with Eckerd Community Alternatives.
“It raises public awareness, so our hope is that more and more people learn that we have hundreds of local children in foster care that need forever adoptive homes,” Putzulu said.
Melissa Maynard of Port Richey adopted her three young cousins, Trinidy, 7; Saira, 5; and Kindra, 4. She said she was excited and overjoyed to finally have made it to adoption day.
“It’s been going on off and on for five years, but I’ve had them in my care now for a year. It’s been a long process,” Maynard said. “... I think I’m a little in shock that it’s actually finally happening. I’m very happy and can’t wait to give them a permanent home.”
She got the girls through relative care placement through Eckerd, and is excited to give the girls a stable, loving environment. Her goals for the girls is that they go to college and have a happy, stable life.
Rahmaya, 6, also was being adopted that day by her aunt, Syanika Porter-Mallory, who is originally from St. Petersburg but now lives with her husband who is stationed in Germany. Porter-Mallory said her sister recently died from a rare blood disorder, which is why she is now adopting Rahmaya.
“It was my sister’s wish on her deathbed for us to adopt her,” Porter-Mallory said. “It’s been a rough five months, but it’s all been worth it.”
Clearwater couple Kellie and Andrew adopted three sisters on Adoption Day who had been foster kids through Eckerd. The girls – Dedra, 10; Callee, 6; and Kayla, 5 – had all been in foster care throughout their lives, and at times were split up.
“We weren’t originally planning on adopting three, but then (Eckerd) called us and said we have three little girls, and we don’t want to separate them,” Kellie said. “So I called my husband and asked, and he said, ‘Why don’t they send over the profiles?’ I was thinking, I’m extremely close to my sister, even though she lives in Missouri, and I talk to her every day. I couldn’t imagine not having that. As you get older, you’re closer to your siblings than your parents. They’d already been separated enough, so I wanted to keep them together.”
When Andrew asked Kellie to marry him 13 years ago, she said she told him that she probably couldn’t have children. He said that it was okay – they could adopt. They first tried fertility treatment, with the intention of adopting more later. Then, someone asked Kellie, “Do you want a baby, or do you want to parent?” Suddenly Kellie realized that she wanted to parent. It didn’t matter if she had the child from birth.
After much research and first trying other agencies, she found the Heart Gallery, which shows the local kids available for adoption. Kellie has a grown son from her first marriage, and when she and her husband first began to look at adoption, she asked him his feelings about it. He said that he already has a brother from his father’s side, so he would love to have a sister.
Kellie said she initially had some concerns about adopting, but those went away working with Eckerd, and they never had any problems.
“I have a friend of mine who adopted from another country, and they didn’t get the baby right away, and then, also, when you adopt somewhere else, you don’t know their health,” Kellie said. “Whereas here, we know everything about them. We know all their medical history, and you don’t get that anywhere else. That was a big deal for us to know that. So we knew how to handle their situation, and if we even could. We know they’ve been taken care of in foster care and everything they do is documented.”
Originally, the Akehurts planned on adopting one or two girls at the most. However, when Eckerd sent them the profiles of three little girls, they realized they were the perfect match. Eckerd works hard to match children with families to fit personalities and lifestyles, and this pairing just seemed to fit.
Donald Richards of Palm Harbor has been the Akehurst girls’ guardian ad litem off and on for the past 10 years – his entire time volunteering as a guardian ad litem – as the girls went in and out of foster care. His job has been to ensure the kids get what they need in foster care, that they are safe and to report their feelings to the court, he said. He generally is responsible for advocating their best interest.
“It’s great that they’re going to have a stable family, and that’s really so important,” Richards said. “That’s what we try to do with children, trying to raise them up to be productive citizens. So those children that never had a good chance, now they have a good chance.”
The girls and their other older siblings have been separated in foster care, then reunited with their parents, and then put back in foster care. Richards said that this last time, some of the children themselves decided that it was not a good idea to continue this lifestyle of instability, in and out of foster care and changing schools often. Their birth parents had their parental rights revoked, allowing the children to be placed up for adoption.
The three girls have other siblings, including an older brother and sister with whom they are close and had playdates with while in foster care. Kellie said one of the questions they were asked during the interview process was if Kellie and Andrew would help keep this connection between the siblings, and she said absolutely. The older sister was set to be adopted by another family shortly after the Akehurst family’s adoption was finalized, she said.
The families who finalized their adoptions on Adoption Day attended a special ceremony, the kids got to meet the Chick-Fil-A cow, and after the individual adoption hearings, the families attended a reception to celebrate.
Lorita Shirley, executive director with Eckerd Community Alternatives, said that it was a special day and was exciting for the public to get a peek into what they see every day.
“Being adopted provides these kids with a renewed opportunity, and, most importantly, gives them forever love,” Shirley said. “If kids don’t get adopted, they tend to age out of our foster care system, and when that happens, even if they’re independent and go on to become successful, they still don’t have that place to go for Christmas or the holidays, or that parent to walk down the aisle. When they have kids, now they’re going to have the grandparents and families to embrace them, so this means so much to us.
Over the past two years, Eckerd Community Alternatives has finalized a record breaking number of adoptions, with more than 600 local foster children getting adopted. On any given day, there are still about 150 children in Pinellas and Pasco counties still awaiting adoption, and each year, about 100 foster kids age out of foster care, meaning they no longer can be adopted.
To adopt, people must be at least age 21; either married or single; either first time parents, parents or empty nesters; a homeowner or renter; people of either modest means or wealth. Adopting through the Florida foster care system costs either little or nothing. The required pre-service training and home study are provided for free, and adoptive parents are reimbursed for adoption-related expenses, such as attorney’s fees and mileage during the visitation process. Adoptions are legally secure, so birth parents can not take the child back if they change their mind. Children are put up for adoption only after a court has terminated the parental rights of their birth parents.
Parents who adopt through the state also likely qualify for a monthly subsidy to help offset ongoing costs, and all children who receive a monthly subsidy also are eligible to receive health care benefits through the Medicaid program until age 18. Adopted foster kids also are eligible for free tuition to any state university, community college or vocational school in Florida.