In Baltimore County, Pat Almony helps bring families together

Clerk's work is a bundle of joy

December 31, 2005|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

For nearly 20 years, Pat Almony filed paperwork on divorces and foreclosures, civil lawsuits and property disputes. It was good, steady work, though inherently rooted in people's problems, disagreements and personal tragedies.

For the past seven years, however, she has held what might be the only job in the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse that revolves around joy. She is the county's adoption clerk and serves as an administrative gatekeeper for families who are finally getting the children they have long desired and for judges delighted at the prospect of a case so different from the bitter battles that fill their daily dockets.

"That's absolutely 100 percent accurate - she's the only one with a happy job," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan, who says jokingly that he "yelled at" Almony last year when she wasn't assigning him as many adoption hearings as he would have liked. He presided last month over a full Saturday morning of adoption hearings during Maryland's first celebration of National Adoption Day.

"There are occasions when the adoptions are contested," Hennegan added, "but she generally deals with people who are excited and happy and judges who are excited and happy about having the cases."

At age 73, Almony knows there are others in the courthouse hoping she'll soon retire and free up that little corner office of heartwarming activity, tucked behind the criminal and appeals departments and the packed-to-the-gills records room.

"Right now, I still like what I'm doing. I think a lot of people in this building want my job," she said. "And I'm not giving it to them."

Almony is not the decision-maker on adoptions.

She doesn't interview the families. She doesn't investigate whether birth parents should have their rights to raise their children terminated. She doesn't chase down the medical records of children being adopted from China, Russia and Guatemala. And she doesn't do the home visits that are required to certify that an adoptive family is a suitable match for a child.

But Almony does make sure that all the paperwork documenting those efforts are filed and ready for a judge to consider. (The list of reports, consents and affidavits that must accompany an adoption petition is itself a page long.) Then she schedules an adoption hearing.

"That's the mundane stuff she does," Hennegan said. "The good stuff she does is, as the lawyers say, how compassionate she is, how she treats everyone, how enthusiastic she is and how much she loves her job - and she really does."

Carolyn H. Thaler, an attorney specializing in adoption work, guardianships and trusts, said that Almony is particularly adept at making a complicated system run smoothly.

"I go all over the state. I know how good she is," Thaler said. "We're talking about children. It's not property, and it's not a lawsuit over something monetary. It's children's lives, so it's really an important job."

The affection that adoptive parents develop for Almony was on display at last month's adoption hearings.

Suzette Brendon blew kisses to the adoption clerk as her family was called to the judge's bench to make final the adoption of 7-year-old Haile, the Brendons' third child from Ethiopia. "She is such a joy to work with," Brendon, 53, of Rosedale, later said of Almony.

Almony, a Baltimore County native who lives in Timonium with her husband of 53 years and who is a grandmother of three, processes about 240 adoptions each year.

That includes parents adopting children from foreign countries or through independent adoption agencies, gay and lesbian couples adopting children, step-parents adopting their spouse's children and foster parents making their temporary houseguests permanent family.

It also includes an occasional adult adoption - usually an elderly person adopting a grown relative to eliminate inheritance taxes. Almony, for example, recently processed a petition from an 89-year-old woman seeking to adopt her 59-year-old nephew.

Almony shepherds each case through the system, from the moment a petition is filed and docketed to the final hearing - held twice a month on Friday mornings - when a judge looks over the file and signs the adoption decree. Those hearings, along with civil marriage ceremonies, are the only exceptions to the strict no-cameras-in-the-courthouse rule enforced by sheriff's deputies at the security checkpoints.

"I think the adoptions I do last longer than the marriages," Almony said. "They're more permanent."

All joking aside, Almony said she appreciates the intangibles that come with her job.

"It's so rewarding because you get to see someone with a baby who wanted for so long to have one and couldn't," she said. "There are some you could write a book about.

"We have some hearings that get a little teary," she said. "You look around and the court reporter or the law clerk are getting teary-eyed, and pretty soon everybody's reaching for the Kleenex. You can just tell what a wonderful day it is for those families."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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