A CHANCE FOR HOPE
At Adoption Day in Pinellas, new families make it official, and kids’ lives begin anew.
LARGO — They arrived at the courthouse almost matching.
The boy’s button-down was the same shade as his mother’s shirt, although that wasn’t planned. The boy’s short, blond hair was swept into a miniature mohawk like his dad’s, and that was, perhaps, on purpose.
“He likes to dress like his dad,” Tracey Karl said of her son, Riley, and husband, John.
They headed into the courthouse and took their seats in the audience as the program began. Karl, 49, thought she would be nervous. But really, she was just excited.
The family was finalizing what they’ve known to be true since Riley, 5, came to live with them three months ago from foster care. They were one of 24 families with 33 children participating Friday in Pinellas County Adoption Day organized by the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Circuit at the County Justice Center in Clearwater.
The event came soon after three local tragedies involving kids who had contact with the child welfare system. In August, Shakayla Denson tossed her 4year-old daughter, Je’Hyrah Daniels, into the Hillsborough River, according to police. Child protective investigators had cleared the mother weeks earlier of an allegation that she wasn’t properly caring for her daughter.
A month later, Jordan Belliveau was found dead in a woods in Largo, his mother now behind bars accused of killing him. The 2-year-old had recently been returned to his birth mother after a year and a half with a foster family.
Last month, a dog mauled a 7month-old girl to death in Clearwater. Khloe Williams had been living in foster care after investigators determined her mom couldn’t care for her. The dog belonged to her foster grandparents.
Now, another month later, children with their own tough backgrounds came in strollers, hiked up on hips and holding hands with their new parents, each with a chance for hope. With the stroke of a judge’s pen that morning, they would become family.
“Many have had a difficult journey to get to this point,” Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino told participants.
For Riley, that meant two parents addicted to drugs, his father in jail, his mother now living out of state, the Karls said. He was taken from his parents as an infant, then again months later. His mom tried to clean up, but they were found homeless, living in a park in St. Petersburg, and he went back into the system.
For Tracey and John, that meant 21 of their 23 years of marriage trying to become parents. They endured two miscarriages, one failed in vitro fertilization, private adoptions that unraveled. They moved to Florida three years ago, and starting the adoption process was one of the first things they did.
They quickly realized how overburdened Florida’s child welfare system is. They almost gave up, telling themselves God had a plan.
Meanwhile, Riley, had started the adoption process with another family. It fell through. The Karls got a phone call.
They met their potential son at a McDonald’s. Riley ordered more McNuggets than a 5-yearold could reasonably eat, plus french fries and a Sprite.
He moved into their Land O’Lakes home three months ago, to a room now full of new furniture and a bed with a comforter inspired by The Incredibles 2. He’s a happy kid, nearly perfect, his mom said. He has taken to the family’s three dogs, especially River the beagle, a rescue, “like me,” he once told his mom. He’s only had one temper tantrum sparked by exhaustion. He even loves vegetables, especially green beans, although he sticks to chicken fingers and macaroni when they eat out.
Sometimes, he’ll talk about his troubled past, like when he said his bed was much more comfortable than the park. But for the most part, he doesn’t seem to remember.
“The very first time we met him, it was like he had been in our lives forever,” Tracey Karl said. “What you see now is what we got on day one.”
What everyone saw was a blueeyed child with dimples, sitting between his parents, their fingers interlaced; the father hoisting the boy upside down to get him to smile while they waited in a hallway; the mother bringing a slice of pizza, catching him in the act of dessert before lunch with a packet of Skittles, and letting it slide, because this was his day.
They gathered outside the courtroom with their adoption attorney, Riley’s longtime guardian ad litem and a Lutheran Services Florida caseworker. The judge was running behind. John Karl, 45, turned to attention every time the bailiff stepped out of the courtroom.
Finally, the bailiff announced Riley’s name. They filed into the courtroom, waited just a little bit longer watching other families make the commitment they were about to make through tears and tissues. Then, it was their turn.
“There’s a love that you see just shines out,” said Cindy Johnson, Riley’s guardian since he was in diapers, as she recommended the adoption.
Johnson took the paperwork to Judge Kimberly Todd. The Karls squeezed hands under the table as Todd signed her name.
The family met in the middle, kissing their new son on each cheek.
John Karl, left, and Tracey Karl spend time with their newly adopted son Riley, 5, on Friday during the Adoption Day ceremony at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater.
John Karl, Riley and Tracey Karl take an oath during the Adoption Day ceremony.
TraceyKarl holds her newly adopted son Riley’s hand. Riley came from foster care to live with the Karls three months ago in their home in Land O’Lakes.