A courtroom is a place where happiness is not often found, but Friday afternoon the Ellis County Courthouse was full of smiles, laughter and balloons as 21 children officially became part of their families.
November is National Adoption Month, and Friday’s event was one of several happening across the state with St. Francis Ministries. Twelve families from towns across western Kansas — including Hays, Russell, Garden City, Cimmaron and Bird City — gathered to finalize the adoption process of children ranging from babies to teenagers.
This is the third year St. Francis has conducted a National Adoption Day event, and the first time it’s been in Ellis County, Corey Donnelly, adoption supervisor with St. Francis, said. The previous events were in Barton County.
The adoption process can take from just a few months up to a year, Donnelly said. It includes home visits, interviews and meetings with DCF and St. Francis officials. Most families enter a foster-to-adopt program, she said. In adoption court proceedings, the adoption decree is signed and the children’s names might be changed to that of their new family.
Ellis County Chief Judge Glen Braun said the court staff put a lot of work into making the day special for everyone involved.
“Someone once said adoption is another word for love. And where there is great love, there are miracles. Thank you for letting us be part of your miracle,” he said in opening the procedures in the third-floor courtroom packed with more than 150 people including families, court staff and St. Francis staff.
Braun presided over the case for the first family, Paul and Shelly Burhenn, Great Bend. They and the three brothers they were adopting — Trai, 9, Justin, 6, and Gauge, 5 — each wore blue T-shirts that read “Our family of 9 became a family of 12 today” with Friday’s date.
Their attorney presented as evidence for their case the adoption petition, consent to adoptions granted by the secretary of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, and an assessment from St. Francis. The parents and the boys were asked to raise their right hands and sworn in as witnesses, and in turn, Paul and Shelly were asked questions including if they were prepared to take on the role of the boys’ parents. The answer was an enthusiastic yes from each.
To make the adoption official, each boy was brought in front of the judge’s bench to pound the gavel, then each received a small Kansas and U.S. flag in a stand, receiving applause as Braun announced the approval of the adoptions.
After completing training to be foster parents, the Burhenns welcomed Trai, Justin and Gauge into their home in April 2017. They also have two girls as foster children.
“All the kids left the house and my wife’s been wanting to adopt and foster for years, and I finally said yes. We went and got classes and here we are today,” Paul said.
As the family waited with Judge Braun for a daughter and grandsons and other family members to join them for a portrait, Paul called to Justin.
“You wanted to tell the judge something. What happened today?” he said.
“What did you come here to do today?” Shelly prompted him.
“Adopt Mom and Dad,” Justin said.
District Judge Blake Bittel and Magistrate Judges Brendon Boone and Douglas Bigge took a turn presiding over cases. In many cases, family members crowded around the table, cell phones in hand to take photos or video.
After each adoption procedure had been approved, gift bags awaited each child outside the courtroom and a nearby meeting room was set up and decorated for a reception with balloons, cupcakes and beverages. Families could get an official portrait in the waiting room of the second floor courtroom. Some invited their judge into their photos. As they left for the day, sheriff’s court security officers handed out stuffed animals and coloring books.
Some families adopted just one child; others, like the Burhenns, adopted siblings. All had been in foster care with their new official families.
“Today the paperwork finally matches up with what has already been,” said Joe Greene, Cimarron. He and his wife, Mindy, along with their children Grace, 18, Eli, 15, and Tigist, 11, came to Hays to adopt Veronica, 14. The couple also has a foster son.
Joe said he was adopted, and Mindy is a social worker with the Garden City school district. The family adopted Tigist from Ethiopia and thought that would be enough for their family.
“As we prayed and prayed, we were led to the international adoption,” Joe said. “We were matched with Tigi and she’s been just a total dream, and we thought we were done.”
But then last spring, Veronica walked into Mindy’s office. Veronica wasn’t on an adoption plan at that point, but as Mindy worked with her, she asked Veronica what her dream family would look like.
“She perfectly described us,” Mindy said.
Her husband was on board with bringing Veronica into the family from the start, they both said.
“I knew she had an open heart. She had this joy in her face from the very beginning and I knew she would fit well with our family,” Mindy said.
“We knew coming in that we were going to adopt,” Joe said. “She has been our daughter and their sister since May 28, 2018.
“And today,” he said, his voice choking with emotion for the first time, “the paper says it.”
“It’s been true in our hearts for a long time,” Mindy said.
“I have siblings and two parents and a bed,” Veronica said with a big smile.
“The first year she was with us, she was willing to try everything, any kind of activity. She did find a love for running, and she was actually our eighth-grade girls league champ” in cross country, Mindy said.
“It’s just amazing what all four of them bring to our family,” Joe said of his children. “They’re such an integral part, as any child is, and we can’t imagine our family without them.”