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- 2005 - July - 4th -

Gooding’s Family Fridays good for all

Bradley Parsons

For the 400 children seeking adoption in Duval County, the search for parents is a race against time with bureaucratic red tape often providing the most significant hurdles. But recent help from Duval County’s courts and Guardian ad Litem is helping more kids finish with a family.

Tired of watching adoption cases trickle through his courtroom one at a time, Circuit Court Judge David Gooding opened up the floodgates three months ago. In March, Gooding opened his courtroom to the first Family Friday, essentially a monthly open call to adoptive families to have their unions stamped legal.

About a block down Bay Street from Gooding’s courtroom in the Duval County Courthouse, the Guardian ad Litem office is also offering unique help to the county’s children waiting for adoption. The office created a Permanancy Team to advocate for the completion of adoptions.

Both approaches are unique to Duval County, but maybe not for long. Both programs have attracted interest from counties around the state.

Under the direction of attorney Helen Spohrer, who left private practice to join the Guardian ad Litem, the Permanency Team is recruiting pro bono attorneys to match up with children waiting for adoption. Spohrer said she’s looking for attorneys to do what they do best: Get adoption cases churning through the state’s bureaucracy.

“They have the legal authority to take action on behalf of these children and they’re used to making things happen,” said Spohrer.

Spohrer has been making recruiting trips to the weekly attorney meetings at Jacksonville’s big firms. The outreach is already starting to pay dividends. She’s already received calls from several attorneys willing to help. Spohrer wants to recruit 50 attorneys to take on two cases each. That would match up about a quarter of the county’s potential adoptees with advocates.

Spohrer hopes that will speed up the adoption process for many of those children and start reducing Duval County’s roster of kids waiting for parents. The longer a child’s name remains on the list, the less likely it is that they will find parents, said Spohrer.

“It can take years, I’m talking five, six, seven years from the time they enter the process, and, in adoptions, time is the enemy,” said Spohrer. “Babies are adopted almost immediately, you can’t keep a baby. But by the time these kids are teenagers, they’ve already had a bad life. They’ve been in and out of different homes and they begin to feel like nobody wants them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Spohrer refers to the waiting period as “legal limbo.” The children have had their legal ties to their biological parents severed, usually due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. Until they find a new family, the children have no legal parents and no inheritance rights.

“The State of Florida is a poor substitute for a parent,” said Spohrer. She asks attorneys interested in helping to contact the Guardian ad Litem office.

Judge Gooding’s Family Fridays, held the last Friday of each month, have been helping more children escape legal limbo. Gooding opens his courtroom up to adoptive families who have the paperwork finished and are waiting only for a judicial stamp of approval.

The proceedings allow Gooding to dispense of the cases much more efficiently. An average Family Friday puts together about 30 new families. Before the expedited proceedings, Gooding was lucky to approve 10 adoptions a month. Aside from the speed with which the cases are dispensed, Gooding said Family Fridays are unique for the emotion they generate.

“The first thing we do is to make sure that we have boxes of Kleenex around. It’s a very happy occasion,” said Gooding. “One of the questions I always ask of the parents is ‘Why do you want this child?’ Some of the responses even choke me up.

“It’s not just the lives in front of me that are being affected. It reaches out to an entire family. The child that appears in front of me, one day will be someone’s great grandmother. I can’t think of anything that appears before a juvenile judge that’s more significant.”

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