After the strike of a gavel, two children in Hidalgo County who were previously under the custody of the state of Texas were officially and gleefully grafted onto another family tree.
It didn’t matter to the kids that they heard the gavel through the speakers of a phone or laptop, or that instead of hugs, they got cheerful waves from social workers they’ve gotten to know so well and their new distant family members.
What mattered to the kids that Monday morning was that their wait for a loving, accepting family was over — they could finally fall asleep in a place they could call their home.
After that virtual hearing led by Judge Carlos Villalon Jr., both children joined 5,238 others in the state who have been adopted in the past fiscal year — of which 28 are in Hidalgo County.
Nov. 23 was also Adoption Day in the county, and November is Adoption Awareness Month, making the day even more special for the two growing families.
The event was held online, but they made sure to still be dressed for the occasion. A young boy donned a red button-up and had his hair slicked back. He could not help but keep a smile on throughout the hearing, sitting in between his new mom and dad.
Since the pandemic reached the region in March, Villalon, an associate judge for the Child Protection Court of the Rio Grande Valley, has been holding adoption hearings online. Before starting the session that day, he asked viewers to understand how important of a moment it was for the two kids.
“All of us have had to be socially distant from families and friends; eight months away from our families, and it seems like an eternity. Now put yourselves in the shoes of our children who are waiting to go to a forever home,” Villalon said.
Currently in Texas, there are 2,909 children waiting for their own adoption year, of which 87 are in the Rio Grande Valley. In Hidalgo, there are 31 kids seeking to be adopted.
There are two groups of children in the care of the state: temporary management conservative children (PMC), and permanent conservative children (TMC). The goal for the former group is to reunite children with their parents or other family members, and for the meantime are placed in foster homes. If reunification is deemed undoable or unsafe, children are classified as TMC, and are legally available for adoption.
John Lennan, the media specialist for the Department of Family Protective Services, emphasized there is a reason children end up in the custody of the state.
“Something happened to that child,” he said. “That child was a victim, and we are all working to help that child recover from being a victim and have that child achieve what every child should have: a loving home.”
Prospective foster or adopting parents could be single or married, and must be at least 21 years old. Additionally, fostering parents can not have more than six children in their home.
The state does not charge fees for adopting and fostering children, and fostering parents are reimbursed for any care expenses. On top of having part of their health care covered, adopted children will have their college tuition completely covered if they attend a state school.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has changed much of the way the department operates, it has not slowed the process of getting children into safe homes, said Rebecca Cavazos, the foster adoption development unit supervisor of the DFPS.
The first step of adopting or fostering is to attend an informational meeting, and she said since moving the meetings to online platforms, attendance has nearly doubled.
The monthly meetings normally gather around six to 10 attendees, and Cavazos said a meeting in the Valley in October had 18 prospective parents. The steady increase of interest is hopeful news to her and the department, because that potentially means more children finding safe and permanent homes.
“It’s very exciting that there has been an increase of families joining our information meetings because at the end of the day, every child deserves a place to feel safe and to feel comfortable — and most importantly, to feel loved,” she said.
Prospective parents then go through a verification process, and then begin training sessions which are held virtually. The sessions follow the 29-hour curriculum of PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information Development and Education), which include sessions about disasters, clinical diseases, and recognizing and reporting sexual abuse among others topics.
These training sessions prepare prospective parents for the invisible scars some of the children might carry.
“The pandemic does not change anything for us. Pandemic or not, abuse and neglect occurs everyday and homes are needed for these children everyday,” she said.
This month, John and Gloria of Hidalgo County officially adopted Jaxon and Cassidy, siblings who are both younger than 10 years old.
John and Gloria first considered opening their house to adoption when both of Gloria’s daughters had moved out of the house for college and they became empty nesters. A light consideration of adoption turned into serious conversations, and after going through the process, they say it is the best decision they have ever made.
“Having the house filled with love and laughter again, and knowing we are making a difference in these kids’ lives, and they have loved us in ways that are beyond what we could have imagined,” Gloria said.
The four first met in April, and after six months of living together, the couple officially adopted both of them on Nov. 2.
John said going through the adoption process during the pandemic has only offered him more time to bond with his two new children. He takes them to the park often where Jaxon and Cassidy play with their scooters, and on other days they play in their backyard pool.
One day, Jaxon and Cassidy asked John what they should call him.
“I told them they could call us poppa and momma,” John recalled. “But one day just a couple months ago, the little girl called me daddy, and I just stopped everything. That’s who I am to her, her daddy, and it was really cool.”
However, John said, there have been rough days. For the first several months, Cassidy would wake up crying and screaming in the middle of the night.
“Our kids have seen and witnessed so much in their short lives, and they’ve witnessed things and been exposed to things that are unimaginable,” Gloria said.
But for the past couple months, Cassidy has been able to sleep soundly through the night.
“When we see these places where we have built this trust, that we have provided something that they didn’t know they were going to get, it makes us feel proud,” John said.
Every day as a family, they say prayers, and John and Gloria said they are intentional about offering positive reinforcement to Jaxon and Cassidy.
John’s favorite part of the process has been learning about the special characteristics of Jaxon and Cassidy. He said Cassidy is very outgoing, and loves to entertain people singing and dancing — anything to make them happy and smile. Jaxon is more reserved, but his wit sometimes catches his dad off guard.
Both John and Gloria are in their 50s, and he said there is no age too old to consider adopting.
“People ask, ‘how are you doing?’ and I say ‘I’m tired but I’m happy, and the kids have rejuvenated this old man,” John said. “And yes I creak and I crack when I get out of bed from chasing them, but it’s all worth it.”