He thought he was there to meet his favorite Disney characters. But they were all there to deliver the most magical surprise.
Benjamin Jervinis couldn’t wait to be a big brother.
The 7-year-old has been his foster sister’s unofficial older sibling since she was 11 months old. Dressed in a dark suit and striped tie with his hair combed to one side, Benjamin waited for the start of the ceremony that would make his now-3-year-old foster sister permanently his.
“I’m excited to have a little sister and not be lonely,” Benjamin said. “And to keep her safe.”
Collier County courtroom 4-A on Friday bubbled with an energy not typical of family court. It was the celebration of National Adoption Day, an awareness campaign that brings attention to more than 100,000 children in the foster care system in the U.S.
Courtroom deputies settled the excited crowd that packed the courtroom and had boxes of tissues at the ready. Child welfare system volunteers dressed as superheroes cheered on the families and took photos.
Ten Collier children were adopted during Friday’s celebration.
“We deal with lots of not-so-fun things in this courtroom,” said Collier Circuit Judge Joseph Foster. “I’m excited to be part of this process and bring families together.”
Foster parents released their breath after reaching the end of a tumultuous emotional roller coaster and moving on to a life of permanence and peace with the newest members of their family.
Some fought and struggled for years to foster their children and finalize the adoptions.
The top priority of the child welfare system is to keep families together, or to reunify families when children are taken from homes. If children can’t return to their birth parents, child welfare workers try to place them with suitable family members.
When family members are deemed unsuitable, as was the case with Benjamin’s sister, the child welfare system places kids in foster homes with the hope of adoption.
A crowded courtroom filled with applause as judge Joseph G. Foster made official Luis and Jessica Buther’s adoption of 9-year-old Elijah, in red on right, at the Collier County Courthouse on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (Photo: Liam James Doyle/Naples Daily News)
Benjamin’s sister was placed in the foster care system in June 2015. Then began the exhausting fostering and adoption process for her parents, John and Merrin Jervinis, and her guardians ad litem, Joe and Ally Epifanio.
“We’ve passed the Kleenex box around a bunch of times,” Joe Epifanio said.
The Jervinises said it was a blessing to have their girl in their home and to now have her permanently. They love her energy, playfulness and fearlessness. They love the connection she formed with Benjamin.
“It was meant to be,” Merrin Jervinis said. “She even looks like me.”
“It’s like we gave birth to her,” John Jervinis said. “She knows no difference, and we feel like we know no difference.”
After the adoption ceremony ended, the families went downstairs to the courthouse atrium for a kids’ party, complete with face painting, balloon animals, caricature sketching and food.
Kids playing pirate ship chased each other with balloon swords, while others shot inflatable bows and arrows toward the ceiling.
Christine Rodriguez watched her son, Angel, as he made a friend and played pirate.
Rodriguez went from being Angel’s babysitter five years ago to being his mom.
“It didn’t take long for him to start calling me Mom,” she said. “When I first heard him say it, I realized this is real. This is happening.”
Angel came from a broken home, Rodriguez said.
When Rodriguez petitioned the court to take care of Angel, she was working three jobs, attended college full-time and had no family around to help her.
“All that and trying to be a single mom,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s mom, Betty Alvarado, ended up moving to Fort Myers to help with Angel’s care. Now the 7-year-old has a mom, a grandma, aunts and great-grandparents who look out for him.
“He’s the most caring, loving child you’ll ever meet,” Rodriguez said. “He’s understanding and passionate and creative.”
Angel also struggles with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is on the autism spectrum. But no matter their struggles, Angel and Rodriguez have a strong connection and solid relationship.
“He’s been through a lot,” Alvarado said. “So has my daughter. We wanted him to have a family. She’s dedicated to him. When all this first happened, I asked her if she was sure she wanted the responsibility. She told me, ‘I can’t leave him, Mom. If God gave him to me, I’m going to take care of him.’ I told her we would support her.”
The Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, the leading child welfare agency in the five-county area, is working with 2,450 kids in Lee and Collier counties.
In Collier, 86 kids are in foster care; Lee County has 495.
In Collier, 161 kids have been removed from their parents and placed with relatives; that number in Lee is 430.
In Collier, 154 kids are in home but have contact with child welfare case workers; in Lee, that number is 476.
Nadereh Salim, CEO of the Children’s Network, said there is always a need for families willing to foster children.
Many Collier children are placed with foster parents in Lee County because there aren’t enough foster homes in Collier, she said.
Salim said the Children’s Network is becoming involved with more children because of the opioid crisis and other drug problems parents are facing.
For information about fostering, call 1-855-933-KIDS or see childnetswfl.org.
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