Saturday was a day unlike almost any other at the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park.
Children ran about playing with balloon swords outside the courtrooms, bailiffs earnestly opened doors to welcome latecomers, judges happily spoke to reporters, lawyers walked around with wide smiles and photographers snapped shots all over.
"I'm not putting anybody in jail today," said Pamela Matsumoto, a referee who handles juvenile traffic cases in Los Angeles Superior Court. "They're all going home."
The courthouse that typically deals with child abuse and neglect cases was holding an annual Adoption Saturday event, an idea conceived about 10 years ago by Judge Michael Nash, who presides over Los Angeles County's Juvenile Court, to make it easier for children in the county's foster care system to be adopted.
The adoption process "was taking too long to complete," Nash said.
So he created a coalition with the Alliance for Children's Rights and the Public Counsel Law Center, and began recruiting volunteers from major law firms to help out.
During the last 10 years, the number of children in the county foster care system has been nearly cut in half, Nash said. More than 20,000 adoptions have been completed, about 9,000 of those on Adoption Saturdays, with as many as 650 completed at one such event. And Adoption Saturday has grown into a National Adoption Day that has spread to all 50 states. Last year's national event provided permanent homes for 3,000 children, Nash said.
There are about 28,000 children under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court because of abuse or neglect, and of those children, 22,000 are in foster care, Nash said.
About 800 children now are eligible for adoption because their parents' rights have been terminated, said Diane Wagner, division chief of Adoption and Permanency Resources for the county Department of Children and Family Services. Anyone interested in adopting can call the department at (888) 811-1121.
She said these children tend to be older, part of large sibling groups (the department tries not to separate siblings), disabled or medically fragile.
On Saturday, about 200 children completed the adoption process with a hearing, after months or even years of paperwork, interviews and waiting.
A weekend adoption hearing meant that parents and children did not have to compete with other cases or court work on a regular workday, and that family members who might be busy during the week were free to attend.
Romenetha Brown, 46, was able to come with a horde of children, including cousins of her newly adopted children and her own daughter Jan'ee, 18. Brown was adopting siblings Miekale, 12, Juan, 4, and Frank, 2, after working through a lengthy process since she took them in as foster children. "They bonded with me," she said, wiping tears that streamed from her eyes. "Juan has the same birthday as I do. . . . I wanted them."
Children of all ages waited for their hearings in halls filled with balloons and carts with free books and toys. Families of six added three children; families of two added four children; some adopted relatives; others created new families; and families who already had adopted were back to adopt again.
"It's really important to these children because we don't want children to grow up in foster care and emancipate out of the system," Wagner said. "At 18, most of us weren't ready to be on our own. These kids need a family. They need a permanent loving family that will provide them with support and structure, and a place to return to after they've become adults."
About 65% of the children adopted from foster care this year were adopted by relatives, Wagner said. She said the department encourages maintaining connection with birth families, even if children are not going to new homes with relatives.
For Jeannette Walker, 61, the family connection was amplified as she became the legal mother of her six grandchildren after being their foster mother for about two years. Her eyes were stained with mascara as she surveyed the children around her. "My daughter has a problem with drugs," she said. "She wasn't caring for them. She'd lock herself in her bedroom for days."
Walker and her husband, who have three adult children, were ready for the new round of parenting. "We're going to raise them," said Paul Walker, 65. "We love them."
After she officially was declared the daughter of the Walkers, 16-year-old Megan said she was relieved the wait was over. "She's basically been my mother the whole time . . . since I was born."