tampabay.com

Homes are best holiday gifts

The fourth annual Hillsborough Adoption Day gave 55 children "forever families."

By ELISABETH DYER
Published November 24, 2006


TAMPA

Zaria Harvey yelled yes and pumped her fist in the courtroom.

That's how she cheers for the West Tampa Spartans when they score a touchdown.

The 5-year-old had scored her own touchdown: Judge Katherine Essrig had finalized the adoptions of Zaria and her new brother Elijah, 6.

Carver City foster parent Lillie Aikens, 52, is now legally Mom.

Zaria and Elijah were among 55 children adopted last week as part of the fourth annual Hillsborough Adoption Day, held in conjunction with National Adoption Day.

Dressed in silks and bows and suits, children donned crowns and tiaras, handed out at the door.

For many of the new families, it was a day they had waited months, even years, to see.

Hillsborough judges started an adoptions unit in October to focus on cutting the red tape that can slow down adoptions.

They chose 150 children whose parental rights have been terminated. Each child was assigned a guardian ad litem. The process requires terminating rights of birth parents and assuring homes of potential parents are adequate.

Completing each step can mean multiple court hearings and long delays. Some of the children adopted were the first to go through the program.

"By having this special unit, we can set more frequent hearings," said Essrig. "Our hopes are that children waiting to find parents are able to find forever families faster."

While they waited their turn, Zaria danced and Elijah wrote his numbers, 1 to 10.

Their brother Edward, 6, and cousin Embry Washington, 11, practiced crossing legs and arms.

When the judge called a recess, the children ate doughnuts, cupcakes and cookies in the lobby. Aikens wished for apples and bananas. Edward, whom Aikens adopted last year, slipped into a stairwell and howled softly, hearing an echo. He called the others. They agreed that it was a ghost.

Aikens, 52, promised them if they were good, she'd take them shopping.

Aikens works in the mail room at the Tampa Tribune and spends her free time juggling football games, movies and the park. She has six children living with her. She loves to take them to the country, where she plans to move the family in a few years.

Three-year-old Tyron is the next to be adopted.

Jason and Kelly Pelloni also were at the courthouse last week. They waited three years to adopt Karla and Johnathan, both 3.

The day they got the news they could legally adopt, they found out Kelly is pregnant.

"An instant family," she said. The kids had awakened everyone in their Carrollwood home at 4:30 a.m. Later they were headed to Disney World to celebrate.

"Everybody thinks we couldn't have kids, but there's so many kids out there who need homes," Kelly said.

Deonna Greek of Valrico became a mom to squirming 3-year-old Brandon Estes.

Carol and Dave Cass of Citrus Park adopted their grandchildren, Zoe, 6, and Brian, 8.

When Aikens moved into the West Tampa projects in 1971, she took in her first child. A teenage girl left her baby with Aikens to babysit. The next morning he was still there.

"She just didn't bother to come back for him," said Aikens, who raised the baby as her own.

Now Derrick Warren is 21.

Aikens decided to become a foster parent in 2000.

She did so after a friend who was a foster mother told her she would "make a good mom."

Never having children of her own, Aikens has cared for about 15 over the years. She was married once and then divorced.

Some of Aikens' children were born addicted to drugs or have health issues.

Zaria's birth mother was 14 and in foster care when she ran away and became pregnant. No one knows the father.

Elijah's birth mother is in jail.

Aikens has had the two since birth. She has no urge to have biological children. "They call me mom," she said. "I think of these as mine."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.