For most of us, the holidays mean family, home, and a time for celebration. This past December 17, the Marion County Superior Court, Probate Division, helped to make that the reality for sixty-one children in Marion County. On a day set aside specifically for adoption hearings, Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, who presides over the Probate Division, finalized thirty adoptions, which is twice the number of non-contested adoptions she handles on a normal Thursday.
In 2009, Judge Walton Pratt reinstated the fifteen-year tradition that was originally implemented by the late Judge Charles Deiter. The tradition arose out of a small Adoption Christmas Party started by Judge Deiter’s adoption coordinator. She cooked snacks for the families and started the tradition of providing each child with a stuffed animal. As the number of families and children taking advantage of the adoption holiday party increased, so did the celebration that went along with the day. The 2009 celebration included a visit from Santa Claus and a proclamation from Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard that December 17, 2009, was Adoption Awareness Day in Marion County. In keeping with tradition, each child received a stuffed animal and goodie bag, each family received a tree ornament, and photographs were taken.
“Families that adopt children are unsung heroes of our community and they deserve support from their families, friends, and public agencies.”
There are an estimated 510,000 children in foster care in the United States with more than 129,000 of them waiting to be adopted. In Marion County alone there are hundreds of children who are eagerly waiting to find loving, safe, stable and secure homes. In 2009, a total of 614 children were adopted in Marion County in non-contested adoption hearings, with 309 of those children coming from the foster care system. Judge Walton Pratt said that she reinstated the adoption day event in 2009 “to bring attention to the fact that children are waiting to be adopted, to dispel some of the myths and fears surrounding adoption, and to show appreciation to the families, lawyers, and stakeholders who participate in the adoption process.” She wants prospective parents to know that they do not have to be rich, married, own a home or be of a certain age or race to become an adoptive parent. Adoptive families do not have to be traditional family units, and Judge Walton Pratt believes that “families that adopt children are unsung heroes of our community and they deserve support from their families, friends, and public agencies.”
Many of the day’s adoptions involved multiple children, including groups of siblings, and children with special needs. For Judge Walton Pratt, another of the event’s goals is to explain the somewhat misleading term “special needs.” Special needs can mean that the child is older, a minority, or requires placement of siblings, as well as physical and emotional concerns. All of the adoptions were non-contested and the Probate Court intentionally set the schedule so that approximately 75% of the children were from the Department of Child Services. One family in particular stands out for Judge Walton Pratt. A grandmother adopted her five grandchildren after her thirty-year-old daughter passed away earlier in the year from a hereditary disorder. One of the five grandchildren also suffers from the same disorder. Because the biological father had been unable to care for the children, the grandmother had become the children’s foster mother pending the adoption.
There is an annual National Adoption Day held on a Saturday in November each year where families, adoption advocates, policymakers, judges and volunteers come together to celebrate adoption in communities large and small across the nation. Judge Walton Pratt wanted to model the Marion County event after the national day. Because Marion County actually conducts adoption hearings, it could not participate in the national event because it occurs on a Saturday.
For other courts interested in holding a similar event, Judge Walton Pratt stresses the importance of supportive court staff and attorneys. The Probate Division has two adoption/mental health coordinators who were instrumental in enabling sixty-one children to be adopted during the Marion County event. The coordinators played an invaluable role in setting up the event and coordinating with attorneys to make certain that all paperwork was complete so that the proceedings could run smoothly and quickly. In addition, the adoption attorneys practicing in Marion County were supportive of the event, recommended clients to include on the schedule, and donated gifts for the children and families.
Judge Walton Pratt recognizes that “every child yearns for permanency in his or her life and deserves a loving parent or parents.” The 2009 Adoption Day Holiday event allowed sixty-one children to receive the gift of family. Judge Walton Pratt intends to hold this event again this year, and with the community awareness raised by last year’s event, 2010 promises to provide even greater cause for celebration.