Amid the ugliness, an oasis of love in courthouse

April 06, 1995|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

In the courtroom to the right, an elderly man is charged with abusing a 5-year-old boy. In the room to the left, Peter Angelos is condemning asbestos companies as killers that renege on big-money settlements.

But in the courtroom in the middle, proud parents are beaming over small children dressed in their Sunday school finest.

This is adoption day in Baltimore Circuit Court -- an oasis of love, smiles and innocence in a place where humanity's ugly side is too often on display.

"Here, there's no fight. It's abunch of happy people who have realized their dream," said Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan,who presided over yesterday's adoption docket. "In all the other dockets, something is taken away from one side or the other, whether it's liberty or money or it's custody or visitation. Nobody is taking anything away from anybody here."

The contrast between the warm feel of the adoption hearing and the fangs-bared legal brawling seen in the neighboring courtrooms -- not to mention the daily parade of murderers and thieves -- is not lost on the parents adopting children.

"You welcome the subpoena," said Tom Gamper, holding 20-month-old Hope Gamper after the girl's adoption became official one day last month. "You walk out of the courtroom and see all the power lawyers, all the adversarial aspects in the world. And here's Judge Kaplan signing these decrees of love."

Until about three years ago, adoptions became final when a judge, in the privacy of his chambers, signed the decree.

A change in law made a formal hearing mandatory before a decree can be final.

The result: Twice-monthly court hearings that feel like hallowed celebrations.

"It's better for the children because it leaves an impression that something big has happened," said Consuella Canada, who with her husband, Claude, adopted 5-year-old Stevon Canada yesterday.

Asked what the day meant, young Stevon said, "I'm going to stay with Mommy and Daddy."

How long? "Forever," said the boy.

His mother said the family would celebrate with cake and ice cream.

The Canadas were among a dozen families brought together yesterday in the eyes of the law. The newly adopted children included a boy born of a drug addicted mother, and a girl who spent her infancy in a Bolivian orphanage. One girl was born to a Baltimore woman with cerebral palsy. The woman who gave the child up for adoption was by the new mother's side yesterday, relishing the chance to remain involved in the girl's life.

One by one, these new families were called before the court.

Judge Kaplan peered over his reading glasses, smiled and made nice talk to the children before pronouncing them adopted.

Some girls wore dresses, and ribbons in their hair. Some boys wore their little-boy best, clip-on ties over dress shirts.

"You're all dressed up!" Judge Kaplan said to 3-year-old John Thomas Hancock Jr. The boy, wearing a white shirt and tie, TC maroon sweater and black slacks, answered, "Yes," and the judge seemed pleased. When his turn before the court was over and his father put him down, the boy dashed back toward the spectators' gallery, grinning and running in fine kid style.

Later, John Thomas Hancock Sr. recalled his son as an infant, and wondered whether the baby's frail emotional nature was due to the birth mother's drug habit.

"We went through a lot," Mr. Hancock said, "but at the end he came out real good."

For Earl Huch and Lois Eldred, yesterday ended the long process of adopting a 5 1/2 -year-old girl they now call Melissa Lineth Eldred Huch. They first met the girl with the big brown eyes two years ago in her native Bolivia.

The girl wore a blue velvet dress yesterday, and when her adoption was final she couldn't wait to tear the teddy-bear wrapping paper from her gift.

It was a paperback children's book, "In the Night Kitchen."

Mr. Huch said he and his wife have been able to determine that the girl's birthday is in September, but they know for sure that they'll hereafter observe April 5 as her adoption day. "She's going to have two special days a year," he said.

Three-year-old Colette McDermott now has two moms.

Wearing a flower print dress, the young girl sat yesterday in her birth mother's lap. The birth mother, Mae Hepple, sat in her wheelchair. She has cerebral palsy.

"I wasn't able to care for Cole, but I still want to be involved with my child. That's why I'm here today," Ms. Hepple said. "Barbara is very supportive of that."

"Barbara" is Barbara McDermott, a Philadelphia lawyer who adopted the girl. Ms. McDermott said she will make frequent drives down I-95 to let the girl visit Ms. Hepple. "Cole's just thrilled with having two mothers," she said.

A sheriff's deputy smiled from her nearby post. Deputy Geneva Freeman, 37, adopted a 14-month-old boy, Jeremy Freeman, last month, so she knows the feeling. Working on the second floor of the Courthouse East building, she looks forward to the first and third Wednesdays of the month.

"You see all the little kids come in and you know it's adoption time," she said.

Judge Kaplan, father of three -- the youngest was adopted -- and grandfather of two, was asked to preside over the hearings about three years ago. He has no intention of giving up the job. Adoptions, he said, are a welcome break from the headaches that come from running the Circuit Court.

"It starts your day off right," he said.

But it didn't take long yesterday for the grim, sad reality of the courthouse routine to reassert itself. The adoptive parents and the children had not yet left the courtroom before lawyers filtered in. A trial was to resume, one involving asbestos and death.

Judge Kaplan went back to his chambers.

There, he signed a final judgment in a divorce.

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