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Judge Presides over Children's New Beginnings

'Adoption Saturday' brings finality to lingering court cases.

In a special hearing of the Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations General District Court last weekend, Chief Judge Nolan Dawkins presided over an emotional Adoption Saturday ceremony. For children whose lives have been torn apart by abuse and neglect, the event was a way to formally mark a new beginning in their adoptive families — emerging from the world of foster care into the embrace of family life. For a court system that can sometimes be impersonal, the event was a way to offer a culmination of seemingly endless legal cases. For retired Judge Stephen Rideout, who began Alexandria's Adoption Saturday six years ago, the ceremony was a way to give back to the community.

"It's wonderful that the court can act in a way that serves as a conclusion for these cases," said Judge Rideout, who brought the idea of Adoption Saturday to Alexandria after visiting a judicial conference. "The kids get so excited about it. The social workers get excited about it. You can really feel the energy in this room, and so this is an event that channels that energy into a way that the court system can bring finality to these cases."

The children that were adopted in the court ceremony last week were all victims of abuse and neglect. After being involved in the foster-care system, these kids have been moved on to different homes. Now that the adoption has been formalized, parents and children can return home knowing that a new life has started.

BUT THE SCARS of abuse are not quick to heal. Children who have been subjected to a physically abusive parent often face emotional challenges that are difficult to overcome. Most children who come through the foster-care system had a parent who was neglectful, ignoring the child and his or her needs.

"Often, children who come through the foster-care system go through feelings of loss and separation being removed from the home and the family they knew," said Lynne Fountain, a child welfare supervisor with the Virginia Department of Social Services. "Our job is not to make them forget. Our job is to help them integrate their past experiences into their new life."

Creating a new life from the remains of a shattered childhood is not easy. "In some ways, they take it with them their whole lives," said Fountain. "And that's why this day is so important to these children — because this is a lifelong experience, but today is a turning point."

WORKING WITH children whose family lives have been shattered by physical violence, drug addiction or mental abuse is a difficult job. Tanya Meline, a senior social worker with the department, says that most cases she sees involve neglect. She has seen children suffer from a lack of supervision, food, medical care and clothing.

"There's no easy solution for these kinds of problems, and kids are much more damaged by neglect than other kinds of abuse," she said. "They learn not to trust adults, and they lose part of their childhood because they are so focused on survival."

Despite the neglect, children usually cling to their dysfunctional home life — the only life they have ever known. Their loyalty and need for constancy is one of the biggest obstacles faced by social workers.

"They always want to go back home, no matter how bad the neglect was," said Meline. "Some children act as guardians to parents with substance problems, and so they want to go back home and take care of Mom or Dad."

BUT THE COURT system is designed to remove children from neglectful homes, and Saturday's adoption ceremony was the first step for many children who have survived the trials of growing up in an abusive situation. Finding the right foster home for these children is not easy, and the court system has a team of professionals and volunteers that are dedicated to this task.

"As cases get more and more involved, it becomes difficult for judges to weave through all the facts," said Shawna McGuckin, a program director with the Court Appointed Special Advocates program in Alexandria. "Our volunteers help give a community perspective to the court."

The CASA program is operated by Stop Child Abuse Now of Northern Virginia, a nonprofit group that works to promote the well-being of children, improve parent-child relations and prevent child abuse and neglect. The organization puts CASA volunteers through a screening process that involves background checks, 36 hours of classroom training, panel interviews and courtroom observations. Volunteers from the program come from various careers, including attorneys, writers, teachers, bankers and the military.

"CASA volunteers can go beyond what Guardian Ad Litems can do because they are often concerned about legal strategy for the children," said McGuckin. "We can offer advice that's not bound by legal regulations or purse strings."

In a court setting where a judge is confronted with dueling lawyers, angry parents and emotionally scarred children, the advice of CASA workers is often the kind of impartial advocate that helps make important decisions.

"We're dealing with the lives of children here," she said. "There's not always an easy solution, so it's important for a judge to get as many facts as possible."

MOVING FROM foster care to adoption requires the termination of parental rights. In the United States, the foster care system is regulated by a 1997 law known as Adoption Safe Families Act.

"This was a law that was passed in response to kids languishing in foster care in years past," said Judge Dawkins. "It stipulates that kids must move into a permanency — a permanent setting — within 18 months."

Children may become eligible for adoption in a number of ways. Sometimes parents are unable to meet the economic demands of parenting children. Judge Dawkins said that this can happen when a child's medical needs are financially draining. These parents can offer children to the permanent entrustment of a social service agency, which can them make them available for adoption. Another way that parental rights can be terminated is if a parent has been abusive or neglectful.

The 15 children that participated in Saturday's ceremony came from such homes, where abuse and neglect triggered the termination of parental rights. Under federal law, these children must be moved into a permanent situation within 18 months. This could include returning to the parents, moving in with a relative or being placed in a permanent foster care situation. More than 200 children are now in the foster care system in Alexandria.

SATURDAY'S CEREMONY included 10 families adopting 15 children. Each family had a story to share, and the courtroom was packed with family members and well-wishers. Mayor Bill Euille delivered the opening remarks, and City Council members Ludwig Gaines and Rob Krupicka were there to share the day with families and children. The keynote speaker was Celeste Campbell, a psychology professor and adoptive parent.

"Today is an important day that will become part of your family lore," said Campbell. "You will often feel like you don't know what you're doing. That's OK because you don't."

She shared several lessons with the audience, offering advice to children and parents.

"Love your children, and let them know that you love them," she said. "This is especially important when they don't want to hear it — when they storm out of the room and slam the door behind them, you need to let them know you love them."

AFTER THE SPEECHES, Judge Dawkins called each participant forward. First up was the Bailey family, a grandmother who was adopting four of her grandchildren. Unlike most children who go through the foster care program, these children got to stay in their family because their grandmother and stepgrandfather adopted them.

"We have a process in Alexandria that's called: one judge, one family — and I've been with these children since the very beginning," said Judge Dawkins. "On the day that these kids came to court, they became mine. Now I release them to their grandparents."

The social worker who facilitated the pairing also spoke during the ceremony.

"Many families are willing to come forward and help out," said Greta Rosenzweig. "But few are willing to make the kind of sacrifice that these people have made."

After the court proceeding was over and the sheriff's deputy told everybody to have a nice day, members of the Bailey family lingered in the courtroom to hug the lawyers and social workers that helped them during the adoption process.

"This is such a great day, and I don't know what else I can say about it," said Trudie Bailey, who was now the adoptive mother of four children. "I would like to thank the social workers who have worked so hard to help us."

Husband Ron Bailey was excited to start his new life.

"This is a great turnaround for my life," he said. "I was a troubled kid, and I could have been coming into this courtroom for a different reason. So I'm extremely happy about what's happened here today."

Currently, 223 children are in the foster care system in Alexandria. Last year, 10 children were adopted from foster care into new homes. The Department of Social services sets goals for children in the foster

care system. In Alexandria 28.7 percent of those children have a goal to return home and 21.5 percent have a goal of adoption.