Editor’s Note: Babble is a part of The Walt Disney Company.
Each year, some 135,000 adoptions take place in the U.S. alone — 59 percent of which are from the foster care system. The long-awaited unions often come after months of waiting for cases to finally make it through the court system, and after thousands of dollars in legal fees have already added up.
But on Friday, November 17 — National Adoption Day — 32 lucky “forever families” were finally able to walk into LA County Children’s Courthouse and make things official, thanks to a dedicated team of lawyers who donate their spare time each year to fulfilling local adoption cases free of charge.
It’s all part of a pro-bono program that was launched by The Walt Disney Company back in 2013 in partnership with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro-bono law firm. In the years since, the program has united some 219 forever families, including those that were finalized at the LA County Children’s Courthouse last month.
Rob Stevenson, Associate Principal Counsel for The Walt Disney Company, has been coordinating the program since it first began, and tells Babble that it’s been an incredible experience for everyone involved.
“[There are] a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of pictures. It’s just great to be a part of it,” says Stevenson, who explains that the unions are especially moving since they involve children who’ve been in the L.A. foster care system for some time, after being removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect.
As you might imagine, the process certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Stevenson explains that first, legal teams of three or more are organized, before they’re assigned to a family to help navigate them through the adoption process and start a case file. Next, he says, comes a lot of waiting.
“It takes about six weeks from the moment that you get the case file to when you’re able to file and get a court date for that finalization hearing,” Stevenson explains. “And then that finalization hearing is usually a couple of weeks after that. Start to finish, you’re looking at two, [to] two-and-a-half months.”
And during those weeks, you can bet there’s a lot of anticipation building among the families who are eagerly awaiting their happy ending.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened with James and Estella Christiansen, who waited patiently several months this year for 16-year-old Zachary to legally be declared their son by an LA County Courthouse judge. The Christiansens were just one of the 32 families whose adoptions were finalized by Disney lawyers on November 17, and they say their excitement on that day couldn’t be matched.
“Today is a day of celebration that the three of us that have spent our whole lives together, or Zachary’s whole life together, are finally being united both emotionally and legally for the first time,” James said shortly before heading into court.
“I’m very excited,” added Estella. “I want to cry — and I want to scream! I’m so excited that it’s coming to an end now. It’s finalized and this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
As for Zachary? He couldn’t wait for the eyes of the law to finally recognize what he himself has known for some time.
“I’m happy that after this very long process, I can finally say that these two are legally my family,” he shared.
For the Christiansens, the quest to adopt Zachary has literally been years in the making. Yet thanks to Disney, they say the adoption process went much more smoothly than it could have. From helping them make sense of all the legal paperwork to guiding them through the weeks of waiting, the Christiansens say their Disney legal team held their hand, every step of the way.
Same goes for Frances Saunders and Daniel Sollinger, who were both among the 32 sets of parents whose adoptions Disney helped finalize last month. They’d been fostering a young girl since May 2016, and were thrilled to finally make things official.
“For me, it means everything to be a mom again,” says Frances. “I have a 30-year-old daughter, so we’re doing it together. And it’s just an amazing opportunity to be a parent again and to be lucky enough to get a little girl like we have.”
But the adoptive families aren’t the only ones who feel they’ve walked away changed from this experience. According to the lawyers involved, each case leaves an indelible impression upon their lives, too.
“It’s great to become part of the family, even for just a short period of time,” says Manuel Grace, Associate General Counsel. “You get to understand everything that’s going on in the family. You get to meet the clients, you get to learn about the child, and for a brief time you get to really experience the excitement that they’re having when they start a brand-new family. And then you go back to your job until the next adoption case and then you start it all over again. I like becoming an adjunct member of a family for just a brief time.”
For Tina Aughinbaugh, Principal Counsel, it’s those final moments in the court room on Adoption Day that get her right in the heart.
“There’s something about sitting at the courtroom table with the clients and the child that they’re adopting and just watching the sheer emotion from them and everyone in the courtroom,” she shares. “It’s just a moment of pure joy for everyone. I think that’s sort of the culmination of all the work over the last few months that everyone has participated in.”
To those who may be considering adoption or are just now beginning the process, the Christiansens have this advice to offer: “Be patient.”
“Work with the social workers,” Estella continues. “Work with the therapists if you have therapists. Just be patient and do exactly what they tell you. Don’t make those extra phone calls — you don’t need to. Just give them time.”
As for the future, the Christiansens are looking forward to finally sharing the same last name and celebrating — by going to Disneyland, of course!
Frances Saunders and Daniel Sollinger say there’s so much they can’t wait for, either; even when it comes to the small things, that others might take for granted.
“We haven’t been able to publicly post her picture on Facebook,” shares Frances, “and I think for me, letting the world know that I’m a mom again so publicly will probably be one of the first things I do.”
But most of all, both families are just happy to embark on a whole new chapter together.
“The weight of not being adopted — that’s gone,” says Estella. “We’re a family now and no one can take him away from us. It’s done and set in cement.”
It certainly is.