Following a simple stroke of a feathered pen, Travis County District Court Judge Darlene Byrne smiled and declared to a packed courtroom inside the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, “Adoption granted!”
On cue, little Mya Huereca, age 4, hammered the gavel down on behalf of Judge Byrne, marking the moment a new life began for all the Huereca family.
When that gavel landed, Eric Thibideaux, Jr., age 17, became Eric Huereca Thibideaux Jr. – the newest and forever son of Jacob and Manijeh Huereca, and big brother to sisters Persia, 6, Mya, and Leilani, 9 months.
“I’m just so happy to have a place to always call home, and someone there to tell me what’s right and what’s wrong,” a shy Eric told the courtroom full of family, friends, courtroom staff, social workers, attorneys and local media. “When I get home I’m going to be like all jumping up and down.”
On most days, the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center in Austin, TX is not a place any kid wants to face the judge. But this wasn’t most days. This was that “One Day,” a word combination printed on some of the hundreds of balloons throughout the building commemorating Austin’s 11th Annual Adoption Day. Counting Eric, 28 children and their new families heard a judge declare those magic words, “Adoption granted.”
So magical in fact that if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought you were somewhere over the rainbow. Like the courtroom in the Emerald City. Complete with a yellow brick road, a girl named Dorothy, her friends Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and a good witch named Glinda. There was also a clown with a red nose in attendance and a man who looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln wearing a big black hat. Gardner Betts apparently stuck to their no pets allowed policy so Toto was a no go but hundreds of stuffed animals covering just about every available surface more than made up for the missing canine.
It was my first adoption ceremony and I was surprised to learn how similar granting an adoption is to a normal court case. Child and family represented by an attorney calling witnesses to testify who have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Except festive like a wedding. Lots of smiles and tears of joy. It reminded me a little like being in the hospital for the birth of one of my own children and overhearing the medical staff refer to the maternity ward as the “happy floor.” On One Day at Gardner Betts, it is a happy floor. Everybody wins.
I was asked to come and observe by my colleague Kristen Ellis, Area Director of our Austin Foster In Texas foster care and adoption office, one of 15 run by Lutheran Social Services in the state. The Huerecas had been fostering Eric already through Foster In Texas and in their minds he was already a permanent part of the family before Judge Byrne made it official. It’s called “foster-to-adopt” in our line of work and is typically just about the best outcome for any kid in the foster care system. Kids Eric’s age are at risk of “aging out” of the foster care system where they face huge odds of making it in the world alone. Incarceration and homelessness are far too often the outcome of kids who age out.
If that weren’t enough, I then bumped into Cynthia Goodwin who works in our accounting department. She and her husband Dan adopted two small girls, biological sisters — Briana, 15 months, and Alina, almost 3 — on One Day as well. A magical One Day indeed!