A CHANCE FOR HOPE

At Adop­tion Day in Pinel­las, new fam­i­lies make it official, and kids’ lives be­gin anew.

Tampa Bay Times - - Local - BY KATHRYN VARN Times Staff Writer

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.

Pho­tos by OCTAVIO JONES | Times

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.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

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.

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