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Born Again

New lives are forged and lifetime commitments are waged on Adoption Day.

For a 10-year-old, Tyler Moore is a stoic young fellow. His speech is crisp and his vocabulary has benefited tremendously from a reading habit that includes devouring Harry Potter books as soon as they are released. It’s also peppered with a legalistic formality, the result of spending years as a ward of the court.

“He still sees his mom and dad, they just failed,” said Ginger Groene, his great aunt. “But they are still his parents.”

Several years ago Tyler was separated from his mother. He developed behavioral problems, bad grades and a difficult attitude — bouncing through four foster homes in a matter of weeks. When Groene learned about what had happened to her great nephew, she stepped in and began court proceedings to adopt him. But the mother fought her in court, dragging out the proceedings as an Alexandria judge gave the mother several opportunities to change her lifestyle.

“The court said that she had to keep a job and stay out of trouble,” said Groene, a Realtor in Fairfax County. “But she couldn’t do that.”

On Saturday, Groene’s long struggle to adopt Tyler was finalized in a ceremonial session of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. Judge Nolan Dawkins paused during the session to tell those in the audience about the time when Tyler demanded a meeting. It was during one of the many legal proceeding he has attended over the last few years when the headstrong boy wanted to meet privately with his lawyer and the judge.

“So we met in my office,” Dawkins said. “And he led the meeting.”

TYLER’S STORY is only one of 24 adoptions that happened in Alexandria on Saturday, which was National Adoption Day. Family courts throughout the nation participate in Adoption Day, created by a Los Angeles judge who was frustrated by a backlog of cases that needed to be adjudicated. The special Saturday session for children who have been abused or neglected became an emotional and fulfilling experience, one that retired Alexandria Judge Stephen Rideout brought to Alexandria in 2002. Saturday’s session was the ninth Adoption Saturday in Alexandria, which usually schedules two ceremonies a year.

“The point is to celebrate families,” said Rideout, who attended the Saturday morning session to congratulate new family members. “It’s also to recognize the good, hard, difficult everyday work that is done here at the courthouse.”

Rideout, who served as chief judge of Alexandria’s family court from 1989 to 2004, said that the city’s participation in the “model court” program of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges was responsible for the creation of Adoption Day. Since 1995, Alexandria has been one of the 32 jurisdictions that participate in the program designed by a national group of judges dedicated to improving the effectiveness of the nation's juvenile courts by establishing new practices and techniques. Rideout said that the model court program has had a transformative influence in the city, and that Adoption Day was the best example of its success.

“We have changed the culture in this community,” said Rideout. “As a result of the model court program, our court system is more collaborative.”

Dawkins, who now leads the court and its participation in the national council’s model court program, said that putting together a typical Adoption Day ceremony takes about six months of planning. Social workers must examine the new families; court administrators must file information in the clerk’s office; judges must accept petitions for adoption; and investigators must file reports. The culmination of all these machinations is an exhilaratingly emotional time for many in the courthouse — one that had many tearful participants reaching for a box of tissues.

“Mr. Mayor, it’s budget time,” Dawkins teased Mayor Bill Euille, who participated in the ceremony. “And remember that we need a lot of tissues over here at the courthouse.”

TYLER IS NOW an attentive and hard-working fourth-grade student. Although he was once enrolled in a special class for children with behavioral problems, he has now been moved back to the mainstream classroom. His most recent report card shows all As and two Bs, and he is currently reading “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

“I like scary books,” Tyler said in the lobby of the courthouse. “They’re funny to me.”

Dorathea Peters, a guardian ad litem, an attorney appointed to represent the interests of a child or incapacitated adult, and a member of the city’s model court committee, said that stories of triumph over tragedy are the reason that Adoption Day is successful. As she stood in the back of Courtroom 2 watching the adoption process coming to a dramatic conclusion, she said that the ceremony represented the first step in a healing process for young lives — that the pain caused by dysfunctional family relationships will take time to heal. And she said that Alexandria’s judges have done an outstanding job of keeping the court system on the cutting edge of being an effective force for positive change in the lives of its children.

“Judge Dawkins has done a wonderful job with the Drug Treatment Court and the Model Court Committee,” said Peters. “And Judge Connie Frogale has really stepped up to the plate and taken a leadership role with the guardian ad litem training.”