PUNTA GORDA — Wide-eyed Stefan, 4, approached the dark, wooden table, dressed in a suit and clutching his stuffed toy alien.
His foster parents, Charles and Alyssa Richardson, followed suit, sitting across from Judge Mary Evans.
Alyssa seemed a little nervous, while Charles poked fun at her. An attorney gave Stefan a toy car to accompany his alien. He played, making motor noises, while the attorney asked his parents questions.
“Do you promise to provide not only for Stefan’s material needs but also his mental, spiritual, moral and financial needs?” the attorney asked.
“Yes,” Alyssa responded.
Though Stefan has lived with Alyssa and Charles for almost two years, Friday he officially became a Richardson.
The number of children eligible for adoption statewide is the highest it has ever been, according to Florida Department of Children and Families’ data spanning back to 2011. November is National Adoption Month, and to celebrate, Stefan, along with 11 other Charlotte County children, were officially adopted by their foster families Friday morning at the Charlotte County Justice Center.
“All children deserve a safe, loving home, where they are free from abuse and neglect, and right now, many don’t have that,” said Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell. “I encourage all Floridians who are able and willing to adopt to please consider making that life-changing decision.”
Though there were only 12 children and 8 families, roughly 100 people sat together in a courtroom during a mass adoption last week at the courthouse in Punta Gorda. They celebrated new families.
“The process can be very long and heartbreaking,” said Judge Evans. “This is one of the best days as a circuit court judge in unified family court.”
Adoption by the numbers
As of Oct. 1, 2018, the most recent data available, 4,979 children were eligible for adoption in the state of Florida. Of those, more than 2,800 children, or 58%, were adopted within 12 months.
Just a year before, in October of 2017, there were 4,258 eligible children for adoption. In October 2016, there were 3,739 children eligible for adoption statewide.
The number has been steadily rising, according to DCF. In January 2010, 2,093 were eligible for adoption. There were 3,000 in October 2011, 4,000 in July of 2017, and a little more than a year later, the number are 21 children away from hitting 5,000.
Half of the 4,979 eligible children in October 2018 were under the age of 7, according to DCF’s child welfare statistics.
For the 124 newborn children eligible statewide for adoption, 105 were adopted, or 84%.
But as the child gets older, their chances of adoption decrease.
Eighty-one percent of these 1-year-olds were adopted within a year.
This rate continues to dip, going down to 77% for 2-year-old children, 69% for 5-year-old children, 55% for 10-year-old children, and 36% for 13-year-old children.
There are currently 39 children available for adoption in Charlotte County, 32 of which have already been placed with a family who wants to adopt. The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida is looking for families for seven children.
“There’s no greater cause than saving children,” said Children’s Network of Southwest Florida CEO Nadereh Salim. “We’re taking broken souls, broken lives and making them new again ... We’re changing the future.”
Practically from the moment Stefan Richardson was born, he was in the system.
He lived in a foster home the first two years of his life, and then lived with a relative. His birth mother wasn’t able to take care of him; she was young and had been incarcerated. At 2-years-old, Stefan moved in with a green blanket to his now-adoptive parents, Alyssa and Charles Richardson.
The parents wanted to adopt after failing to conceive their own child, the 41-year-old father said.
While navigating the adoption process, and specifying they wanted a younger child, Alyssa knew Stefan’s guardian ad litem, who was looking for another placement for the then-2-year-old.
The first time Stefan was in the Richardson’s home, he said “I’ll be back.” He called Alyssa “mommy,” but at the time called every female figurehead “mommy.”
Stefan was right, though, and has now lived with the Richardsons for almost two years.
“We embraced him with open arms,” Charles said, wanting to show their new son the couple’s love for Disney movies.
And, of course, there was a honeymoon phase that faded. Stefan started retaliating, spitting, yelling and rebelling in ways a toddler could. He got in trouble at day cares, and was even kicked out of a few.
“You have to go into it with an open mind because you never know what to expect,” Alyssa said.
But, with time, Stefan realized he could trust his new family. He had to learn the rules, follow instructions, and started only calling Alyssa his “mommy.”
Stefan is now in pre-school at Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Port Charlotte. He goes to Disney World monthly with his parents, who have annual passes. Charles looks forward to getting Stefan into an organized activity, like a sport, sometime soon, and watching Buccaneers football games with his new son.
Charles watched Thursday afternoon as Stefan hugged his mom, less than 24 hours away from it all being official. “This guy is just a godsend,” he said.
Four-year-old Hadley Terry brought her teddy bear to the table. She, wearing red, sat in the lap of her new mom, Paula Terry, who was also wearing red. Her new sister, Meagan, had her arms around Hadley’s siblings, Lucas and Lilly.
All of them were wearing red.
The attorney asked Paula the same question: would she care for all the needs of these three siblings?
“Absolutely,” Paula cried, wiping tears from her eyes.
Once the sibling group of three were announced official Terrys, Paula and her husband James hugged their new family members.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Paula said. “We’ve wanted this for so long.”
Paula and James have fostered the siblings for almost three years.
Meagan, who was an only child, isn’t alone anymore, she said.
“We had a lot of love we wanted to share,” Paula said.
The family was just going to adopt one child, James said, until they learned about the huge need for sibling group adoptions. “We felt there was something we had to do.”
With her new nieces and nephews, their aunt Joanne Terry said she almost has enough nieces and nephews for a baseball team.
“A weight has been lifted,” James said.
Mykal and Don York had seven kids Thursday. Now, they have eight.
Though 4-year-old Jeremiah had been living with the Yorks for three years, he finally became a York Friday morning.
“He’s now yours,” his now older sister, Keeley, told her mom after Judge Evans made it official.
The Yorks began caring for Jeremiah as a part of a respite care program a few years ago. His father wasn’t around, and his mother had a substance abuse issue, Mykal said. Eventually, he just stayed.
“It feels good to show our kids the love you can give to others,” Mykal said, with her eldest daughter, Jayden, 18, acting sometimes as a second mother.
“He cuddles with me, he’s like a baby,” Jayden said.
Now Keeley and Jeremiah can continue to pretend the floor is lava, and other games, as brother and sister.