Courtrooms often detail the worst in people, but adoption proceedings in Howard County, led by Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, celebrate the creation of new families with unbridled enthusiasm.

A joyous courtroom contrast

June 15, 2005|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Cradled in his soon-to-be mother's arms behind a table in a Howard County Circuit courtroom, 4-year-old Donny proudly stated his name when questioned by the judge.

"Donny Garrett," he said loudly and clearly, though he was a bit ahead of himself as the adoption decree had not yet been made official, assigning him the last name of his adoptive parents, Phillip and Patricia Garrett.

About a minute later, Judge Dennis M. Sweeney signed the adoption decree of Donny and his sister, Shannon, 11. Friends and family burst into applause, some brushing away tears, as digital cameras captured the excitement.

It is quite a different atmosphere than what usually exists in the courthouse.

"So much of what we do here in the courtroom doesn't have a happy beginning or end," Sweeney told the audience during a recent ceremony where four children in the care of Howard County's Department of Social Services were adopted. "It is such a nice thing to be able to do something in this courtroom that we know will have a happy result at the end."

For about six years, Sweeney has presided over adoption hearings in Howard Circuit Court, putting on ceremonies that erase the stiffness that can accompany some bureaucratic processes. Instead, it's a big party.

After Sweeney signs the adoption decrees in the courtroom, the families - dressed in their nicest clothes - eat cakes that celebrate each child's adoption during a festivity marked with flowers and balloons where more photos are taken of the new families.

"I applaud the judge for symbolizing the importance of each individual adoption," state Human Resources Secretary Christopher J. McCabe said.

Charlene R. Gallion, director of the Howard Department of Social Services, agreed, acknowledging that she wiped away a few tears during the ceremony. "For him to make a big deal out of it, it really is a plus for Howard County, and the whole human services field," she said.

Sweeney took on the duty of the unofficial adoptions judge after Social Services approached him for advice on how to speed up the adoptions process, in which petitions can sometimes be put on hold for months until a judge is available.

Sweeney performs the ceremonies when needed. For the fiscal year, which ends June 30, the county Social Services Department expects to finalize 15 adoptions, said Norris West, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources.

Sweeney, who has two Korean-born adopted daughters, now 23 and 24, said he understands the anxiety that adoptive parents go through during the process and likes to perform the ceremonies to give them a celebration.

An emotional moment

"You see so much of the downside of things in court - people have come to the bottom of their life," he said. "And it's nice to see people having a good moment in their life that's associated with a courtroom."

Teresa King of Baltimore was overcome with emotion when Sweeney signed the adoption decree for 2-year-old Arianna.

She and her husband, Robert, originally set out only to be foster parents to Arianna, but after two months with her, they knew they wanted to be her parents.

"She's the third child we always wanted," said King, who has a 22-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter.

`Makes it official'

Phillip and Patricia Garrett, a Columbia couple without children, were looking to adopt older, local children when Donny and Shannon were placed in their foster care a year ago.

"We felt like a family already," Phillip Garrett said after the ceremony. "This just makes it official."

And at the end of the ceremony, Sweeney was disappointed that he didn't have more adoption decrees to sign.

"Any more?" he said. "I like this. Let's do some more. You usually don't find a judge who says, `Bring on more cases.' This time you do."

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