'It meant everything to me': Michigan celebrates Adoption Day
Mount Clemens — Tyler joined the Raynard family at 2 months old. More than one year later, his forever family was made official Tuesday at a Michigan Adoption Day hearing before Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Mark Switalski.
"The court…does find that granting this adoption is in the best interest of the child," Switalski announced after a brief hearing. His courtroom erupted into applause and the judge passed the boy a brand new teddy bear to mark the occasion.
Tyler, now 19 months, babbled and squirmed in court, dressed in a red plaid shirt and tiny blue shoes. His nose was running, so his mother kept a tissue handy.
"He's a handful, climbing everything," said Roseville resident Mary Raynard, 37, prior to the hearing. "But it doesn't matter to me."
She sat beside beside husband Edward Raynard. Tyler is the 38-year-old man's nephew, he said. His sister has been incarcerated in the past.
"I'm happy for him, to give him a better life," Edward Raynard said.
Tyler was among three children adopted by relatives Tuesday at the Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens, as part of the 14th annual Michigan Adoption Day. The statewide celebration is held annually on or near the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, with the theme of "Giving Thanks for Families."
Around 100 children were expected to be adopted statewide on Tuesday and in recent days, according to court officials. National Adoption Day was Saturday and National Adoption Month is November.
The ceremonies in Michigan came "replete with balloons, teddy bears, infectious smiles, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and extended family members," officials said.
That description proved true on Tuesday at the Macomb County court, where purple and white balloons flanked Switalski's courtroom door. A red carpet completed the festive look. Inside, extended family, friends and social workers packed the standing-room only courtroom.
Prior to the hearing, Wayne Sturgill, 39, cuddled a curly brown-haired toddler dressed in a tiny button-down shirt and khakis. Jordyn, 2½ years old, came to the Sturgills in Shelby Township one year ago after a family situation left him needing a home.
Sturgill and his wife, Kelly Sturgill, knew immediately that they would adopt their boy. Despite that certainty, Tuesday proved to be an emotional day for the growing family.
Kelly Sturgill, 39, fought back tears as she tried to describe the significance.
It's just...I don't know how to explain it," she said. "The journey is official."
In court, Jordyn clutched a giant Mickey Mouse stuffed animal and rested his head on his father's shoulder. The Sturgills, like the other adoptive families, raised their right hands and promised to treat the boy as their natural child, accepting legal responsibility for all financial, emotional, spiritual and intellectual guidance.
A third couple also came before the court Tuesday to adopt their 12-year-old granddaughter, Alexis.
"It's not something we really planned on, but the opportunity came up," said Madison Heights resident Mark St. Charles, 61. "She was going to go into a foster home, we had 30 minutes. I went to pick her up and she's been with us ever since. That was three years ago."
Alexis St. Charles spoke with a soft voice about the importance of her adoption day. The lengthy process was "stressful, there's a lot of ups and downs," she said.
"It meant everything to me," Alexis said of the finish line Tuesday. "I'm happy to finally be with my family."
In court to witness the proceedings Tuesday was the Cox family of Chesterfield Township, veterans in the adoption world who attended to share their story. The couple previously adopted three children, including a young neighbor on the verge of homelessness and two nieces from Tennessee.
"(My son) was a little guy that came to the door," Cox said in court, through tears. "He was dirty, and he was scared. And he didn’t know what was going on. I gave him some toys to play with, and he ran away.
"From that moment, there was something sparked in my heart for this child," Cox continued. "We became friends; we became buddies. He would come over after school and eat, and eat, and eat."
Cox stressed that her son's biological mother "never intended to be a bad mom."
But when Cox and her husband, Victor Cox, 69, learned of their neighbor's plan to give her 4-year-old son away, the couple opened their home.
"(The boy) said 'I'm going to live with Victor and Susie,'" Sue Cox said of the little boy's declaration at a court hearing when he was just over four years old. "He walked out that door and never looked back. Never went back."
This story has a heartwarming twist, which happened about three years later. The 7-year-old boy was playing outside when he abruptly stopped, marched inside, and made another declaration: His new name would be Victor Steven Cox Jr., after the man he called dad.
"He never answered to his birth name again," Sue Cox said of her now 33-year-old son.
The adoption was finalized when the boy was 14 years old.
"When he signed (the form) that day, he underlined (his name) and put an exclamation point after it," Sue Cox said.
The Cox family again jumped into action years later, when their nieces from Tennessee asked for a home.
"You name it, they did it," Sue Cox said of drug use by the girls' biological parents. "We would walk into a situation that was just appalling, but we couldn’t do anything about it. We didn’t have any rights. The courts weren’t doing anything, they were already in foster care twice."
Laughter filled the courtroom when Cox put her frustration toward the parents into words.
"You want to shake them by the neck, but you can’t do that by law," she said.
Both girls, Jinnifer, now 16, and Clara, now 14, asked to be adopted.
"Jinnifer said, 'Please, I’m so scared. Take me back to Michigan with you,'" Sue Cox said.
The three adoptions have transformed the Cox family into tireless adoption advocates.
"We can find a home for every one of these babies," Sue Cox said, gesturing to a printed list of 251 children available for adoption in Michigan. Only eight have pending forever families, she said. "They don't trust anybody, but why should they? I look at my son, and Lord have mercy when I think (about) what he went through. All they need is someone to love them."
Victor Cox Sr., mostly silent during his family's pre-ceremony presentation, addressed the adoptive families in the room with tears in his eyes.
"When you adopt, people say you’re 'great people' but the kids…"
Cox paused for several seconds, choking back the tears.
"The kids have absolutely been a blessing to us through the whole process."
Michigan Adoption Day originated in 2003, with finalization hearings at the state Supreme Court beginning five years ago. Each year, local judges are invited to Lansing to oversee hearings for families from their own counties.
This year, three judges planned to join Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. in Lansing: Monroe County judges Cheryl Lohmeyer and Frank Arnold; and Kent County Judge Kathleen Feeney.
Seven children were expected to have their adoptions finalized Tuesday in Lansing, according to Barb Browne, Michigan Supreme Court program coordinator.
"I found a giant teddy bear...it's almost as tall as me," Browne said about plans for the Lansing celebration. "It will be sitting in the courtroom with little teddy bears all around it, so the kids will get to go up and choose one."
The celebrations extended well-beyond Lansing's borders.
Judges from more than two dozen counties statewide planned to preside over public adoption ceremonies Tuesday and in recent days.
"There's just so much excitement," Browne said. "It's just one of the best days of the year."
Judges typically finalize adoptions in private hearings or administratively. Michigan Adoption Day is the exception, Browne said.
"The whole idea behind it is to bring attention to the need for loving families; adoptive families and foster care families," she said. "The goal is also to educate the public about the rewards of being an adoptive parent. The multitude of media stories are always heartwarming, wonderful, uplifting, and provide readers and viewers an opportunity to reflect about how important it is for children to have a forever family."
Those heartwarming stories tug at Browne's heartstrings year after year, she said.
"I think to myself, 'You are a sophisticated woman, you are not going to cry,'" Browne said. "Seconds later, I'm reaching into my pocket" for a tissue.
Browne often does not know the full histories of the children being adopted. It doesn't matter, she said.
"I just get the see the end result and the joy that the families have," she said. "That’s the fun part of it."
The statewide celebrations were sponsored by the Michigan Supreme Court, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Supreme Court Administrative Office (SCAO) and the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (mare.org), an online resource for adoptive and prospective adoptive families.
They were designed to bring attention to the 12,600 children in Michigan foster care, officials said. Of those children, approximately 2,600 have birth parents whose rights have been terminated and around 300 are readily available for adoption.
Around 90 percent of children available for adoption qualify for adoption assistance, officials said. This includes the state's Adoption Medical Subsidy Program to help offset the costs of caring for children with physical, mental and/or emotional needs. The state pays around $200 million annually to adoptive families with qualifying children.
More than 2,000 children were adopted through foster care during the fiscal year 2016, officials said.