Landon didn't spend much time with his biological mother before he entered the foster care system. So when the biological mother met Deb and Susan Whitewood of South Fayette, who wanted to adopt Landon, there was no drama.
The mother "wanted him to have the opportunities that she was never provided with," like a stable home and college, said Deb. The Whitewoods said they'd give him that.
Starting Saturday, that's officially their job, permanently.
The Whitewoods were among 32 families that adopted 42 children at the Allegheny County Children's Court, honoring the 13th annual National Adoption Day with a festival of family that included sketch and balloon artists, laughter and tears, and, most important to 20-month-old Landon, cookies.
"Cookie, cookie, cookie, cookie," he said, as he shifted from Deb's lap to Susan's and roughed up a balloon fish.
Landon was placed in foster care shortly after birth. The Whitewoods served as respite caregivers for his foster family.
"Then it progressed to, 'Would you be interested in adopting?' " Deb said as she waited on the fourth floor of Family Court for the adoption hearing.
Sure they were.
"God put the thought of adopting a child or foster care into our hearts 20 years ago," Deb said.
Back then, though, it was tough for two women to adopt. So Deb was twice impregnated, giving birth to Abbey, now 16, and Katie, now 14.
Susan then went through the second-parent adoption process, which was "kind of nerve-wracking at the time," Deb said, because the judge had discretion as to whether to allow two women to parent together.
Thankfully, they had a dedicated attorney, Kathryn Hens-Greco -- now a judge on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas -- who persuaded two judges to finalize the adoptions. Since then, Judge Hens-Greco said, the state Supreme Court has ruled that "a family should be based on who loves this child, and not based on whether -- as Susan and Deb cannot be in Pennsylvania -- they are legally married."
Abbey and Katie are poised young women now, the former a responsible baby-sitter and the latter an enthusiastic playmate to Landon.
"I'm not really fond of kids," Katie said, "but Landon is amazingly fun."
"Landon is Mr. Social," Deb said. "Everyone is his friend who he just hasn't met yet. ... He loves to run, he loves to play, he loves to read," especially the book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"
The Whitewoods took Landon in full time in February, and what followed was a period of pre-adoption form-filling and repeat home inspections. There was lots of, "Kate, make sure your room's clean," Katie said.
Adoption is a last step and isn't taken lightly, said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services. When there are allegations of abuse and a child is removed to foster care, the department strives to prepare the biological family for a reunion or to place the child with other relatives, he said.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to see all children remain with their biological families," he said. There comes a point, though, where the child's need for stability trumps everything else.
"I've had this child in foster care for a year, mom's still an addict," he said. "If they're not getting their act together, we have to move to terminate parental rights."
Such terminations are the root of most of the 190 adoptions finalized in Allegheny County this year. Though the majority of the kids adopted are 5 years old or younger, some are older, including a handful in their late teens.
The department has a good track record of placing children, Mr. Cherna said. Still, there are around 50 kids whose parents' rights have been terminated but who have not yet been matched with adopting parents. Older kids, siblings who would be best kept together, and kids with intellectual or physical disabilities are the hardest to place.
There's no financial upside to adopting -- just a modest stipend if the child has special needs. Still, anyone with the "capacity and the will and desire" should consider adoption, Mr. Cherna said. Information is available at www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/adopt.aspx.
The judge's approval of the adoption is the final, formal event that occurs only after a feeling-out process that can run for 18 months.
"It appears to this court," said Judge Hens-Greco, with the Whitewood clan nearly filling her courtroom, "that the welfare of [Landon] will be promoted by this adoption. ... Let's clap for Landon."
The boy beamed as he scanned the eyes that were all on him.
"It's truly awesome," said a teary Susan, 48, as the family left the court. "It's a dream come true."
Deb, 44, said she felt "intense joy that God blessed us with him, but relief that nobody's going to take him away."region - neigh_west - neigh_south
Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1542 or on Twitter: @richelord.