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Adopting a helpful attitude

By John Van de Kamp
President, State Bar of California

Former attorney general John K. Van de Kamp was sworn in as the 80th president of the State Bar
John Van de Kamp 2004-05 President

Christmas came early for 200 children at the Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park. On a cool Saturday football morning, the court came alive as hundreds of families converged with one purpose: to finalize the adoption of children who had come to the families from foster care or group homes, most for at least six months.

Judge Michael Nash helped initiate the adoption program six years ago. Twice a year, Saturday mornings are set aside at the court as Adoption Day. Judges, lawyers, social workers and court personnel donate their time for this big day. Lawyers lay the groundwork, prepare the filings and participate in the ceremony that brings finality to the process.

I thought it might be a good illustration of the good that lawyers do, so Judge Nash put me in touch with Amy Pellman, legal director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, whose organization, together with Public Counsel, helps organize the event. Amy asked me to assist in one of the adoptions and provided me with the background of the three children being adopted by one family. (Their names have been changed for this article.)

Walter and Meg Roberts are African-Americans in their mid-30s, who live near Pomona. Walter is an immigration officer, Meg a homemaker. They never had kids, so they decided to adopt.

Two of their adoptees are Hispanic sisters, Anna, now 11, and Maria, now 3, who came to the Roberts after being abused by their birth mother. Maria was 26 days old, anemic and undernourished, and had bruises on her arm. Anna had called the police after her baby sister was hit by her biological father. At 8, Anna had never attended kindergarten and could not read or speak clearly.

Billy, 7, was abandoned by his birth parent, had a severe emotional disorder and was undernourished. The Roberts also noticed he sat very close to the television set to watch. Although Walter and Meg got glasses for the little boy, they eventually determined he also had hearing problems.

When I met them, all three were thriving. Anna is the Mother Superior of the group, doing well in school and told me she was going to grow her hair very long so she could donate it to children with cancer who are in need of wigs. Maria is the baby of the family,  thriving on the attention she receives. Billy, after two surgeries, can hear well and is doing well in school. He bounced around, like any normal 7-year-old, looking very studious with his glasses.

In looking over their papers, I noticed that all three had modified their names. Billy wanted to be called Walter Roberts IV after his new dad, while Maria added a middle name that honored her new mother.

Their last name would be Roberts.

When the family and relatives were ushered into Judge Nash’s court, he quickly put the children at ease and gave each one a teddy bear. I asked Walter and Meg the formal questions — making sure they understood that the children would have all the rights of natural children of their own issue, including the right of inheritance, and that they had the duty to provide for their health, welfare and educational needs — and they signed the necessary documentation. This is a “forever deal,” Judge Nash said.

He then turned to the children and asked if they wanted to say anything. Anna and Maria said “Thank you.” Billy, the new Walter Roberts IV, whose nose was buried in a coloring book, looked up and said, “I want to thank God.” I was glad Judge Nash didn’t ask me to say anything; I couldn’t have said a word.

That morning, some 55 Los Angeles volunteer attorneys were involved in the adoptions of another 197 children.

Chief Justice Ron George had appeared in a prior year. He told me he had been assigned one adoption and got so caught up in what he was doing that he processed 12. Judges are lined up on a waiting list to be assigned.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher has helped with the program from the beginning; their attorneys have processed more than 2,000 adoptions. Other firms also have made significant attorney time contributions. I was told of one attorney who said that his role in the adoptions gave him more pleasure than anything he has done as a lawyer.

When we left Judge Nash’s courtroom, we adjourned into a room of celebration. Balloons, food, milling children, Tweety and Bugs in costume (or were they?), Henry Winkler (Fonzie of television fame) TV cameras — and hundreds of different stories.

I met one mother who adopts challenged children. With her that morning were two prior adoptees, a boy in his wheelchair with Down Syndrome, an autistic girl, and her newest addition, a child who had been “born dead” and brought to life, but has to be fed every three hours through tubes because she can’t swallow. The mother talked about her children in a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense way. Two days later I got an e-mail from her thanking me for talking to her. There are incredible people in this world.

The Los Angeles Adoption Saturday Program has now been duplicated, in some form, in more than 200 American cities in 37 states. On our November Saturday, more than 3,400 children were adopted nationwide.

Judge Nash says there’s much more to be done. Procedures leading to adoption are cumbersome and there are challenges to finding families for children with disabilities. Nationally, 126,000 children in foster care are waiting for adoption.

That said, the three hours I spent at the Children’s Court gave me renewed hope in the goodness of men and women as evidenced by the adopting parents, a better understanding of the innocence of and hope for children coming from challenging situations, and reinforcement of my choice to become a lawyer.

Those trained in the law — judges, lawyers and court personnel — and social workers play a leading role in our society, treating the wounds we inflict on one another. If only more knew of that.

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