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Family Courts Become Hubs of Happiness for Adoption Month

Judy Castillo and Aniyah officially became mother and daughter in front of Judge Karen Lupuloff in Manhattan Family Court on Nov. 20, 2019.
Judy Castillo and Aniyah officially became mother and daughter in front of Judge Karen Lupuloff in Manhattan Family Court on Nov. 20, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Amid a crush of families awaiting adoption ceremonies at Brooklyn Family Court earlier this month, one little boy told everyone within earshot he was about to get married.

The following week in Bronx Family Court, 5-year-old Zariah Thompson explained her joy: “I ate candy and the judge changed my name.”

That same day in Manhattan, Carmen Ynoa, 60, adopted her fourth child. “If you can do this, do it,” she said. “It’s a beautiful experience and there are so many children who need a parent.”

Those were among the messages that emerged from family courts across New York City in November — National Adoption Month — as at least 72 children were welcomed into permanent homes.

The number of children adopted in New York City has dropped in recent years — from 990 in 2015 to 740 last year. Reunifications with biological families, typically the goal of the city Administration for Children’s Services, also declined slightly over that same period — to about 2,200 last year.

Both figures are a reflection of a corresponding decline in the number of kids placed into foster care, officials say.

Behind every statistic is a story. Here are some scenes from adoption ceremonies THE CITY witnessed in family courts this month:

‘This Is Your Mom’

Judy Castillo didn’t think motherhood was in her future.

Castillo, who’s in her early 40s, couldn’t have children. But nearly three years ago she became an unofficial mom to her stepson’s daughter, Aniyah, when the girl was just 5 days old.

“I was there when she was born,” Castillo explained. “I was in the delivery room.”

Castillo became a certified foster parent, but has never cared for anyone other than Aniyah. That marked the first step in the years-long adoption process for the Upper West Side mom.

Judy Castillo and her daughter Aniyah.
Judy Castillo and her daughter Aniyah. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“She’s already part of the family so it’s not going to be a big difference,” Castillo said.

But the adoption signified far more than just a formality to Castillo.

“I thought it would never happen for me, so this is a blessing,” she said. “This is God letting me know, ‘This is for you.’”

Judge Karen Lupuloff invited Aniyah and Castillo to sit in her seat on the bench, overlooking the court.

“This is your little girl. And Aniyah, this is your mom,” Lupuloff said as Castillo quietly cried.

“You will love each other for the rest of your lives. You will protect each other for the rest of your lives. You will be each other’s best friend for the rest of your lives. You have already been a forever family, but right now I’m so very, very pleased, on behalf of the State of New York, to make it official,” Lupuloff added.

The family is planning a “big party” for Aniyah to celebrate the adoption and her third birthday next week.  But after the court ceremony, the two headed out shopping to “pick out whatever toy or whatever she wants,” Castillo said.

Castillo kept Aniyah’s birth name and last name, but swapped out her middle name for the initial “C.”

“Because it could stand for my last name as well,” Castillo said.

‘Everything Is Going Uphill’

The phone rang at 10 a.m. on an April morning two years ago, and within hours, 10-day-old Nicholas was on his way.

Partners Jacina Beckles and Emily Garcia, of East New York, were suddenly foster parents.

“When we got him, he was ours,” said Beckles, a 30-year-old bookkeeper. “He was making my facial expressions already.”

The doting couple know parenthood isn’t easy — especially when you want to adopt a baby caseworkers are attempting to reunite with his biological family.

Jacina Beckles holds Nicholas as she and partner Emily Garcia, take part in adoption day in Brooklyn Family Court, on Nov. 14, 2019.
Jacina Beckles holds Nicholas as she and partner Emily Garcia, take part in adoption day in Brooklyn Family Court, on Nov. 14, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The main goal is always reconnecting with the family, so it’s difficult to know he might not stay with us,” said Beckles. “There were times the outcome was uncertain.”

The moment they learned they would be eligible to adopt Nicholas, now 2, was “like sunshine and rainbows,” said Beckles.

“He’s funny, he’s a clown,” said Garcia. “He loves to dance. If they turn on music you’ll see his moves.”

“He’s always happy,” added Beckles.

After court, the family of three celebrated at a play place in Queens — with a giant ball pit, a kitchen area for play-cooking, and several slides — and with a meal at TGI Fridays.

“I was like, it can’t go downhill,” said Beckles. “Everything is going uphill from now on.”

‘Let Me Open Up My Home’

Julie Lewis already was serving as foster mom to three young kids one day in December 2015 when her caseworker came to her in a panic.

The worker had three young siblings whose temporary home wouldn’t be available for another week, and she feared she’d have to separate them in the meantime.

“I said, ‘I have space. I’ll help you out — bring them to me,’” Lewis recalled.

The caseworker promised Lewis that the children — then-6-year-old Skyle-Nevah, 5-year-old Javante and 3-year-old Anylia — would be out of her Staten Island home by the following Tuesday.

Javante, left, with soon-to-be official mom, Julie Lewis, Anylia and Skyle-Nevah during adoption day in Brooklyn Family Court on Nov. 14, 2019.
Javante, left, with soon-to-be official mom, Julie Lewis, Anylia and Skyle-Nevah during adoption day in Brooklyn Family Court on Nov. 14, 2019. Photo: Yoav Gonen/THE CITY

“Tuesday came and I didn’t hear anything. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday — and it’s Christmas,” recalled Lewis. “They had a beautiful Christmas. After that came New Years.

“And they’ve just been here ever since.”

On Nov. 14, Lewis and the three siblings were among the 37 families packed into an upstairs lobby of Brooklyn Family Court.

She was adopting the oldest two kids — Javante with his red formal jacket and matching Converse Chuck Taylors, and Skyle-Nevah with her sparkly pink dress and matching hair braids. She also filed paperwork that day to adopt Anylia, who donned a white dress splattered with spring colors.

The three other kids Lewis had been caring for returned to their biological family in 2017. She also has a biological son who’s 36, and three other adopted kids in their 20s.

“I had one child and decided you know what, let me open up my home,” said Lewis, 61. “It’s my way of giving back and changing the trajectory of someone’s life.”

On one level, she said, “Going through that process is all adult paperwork business. For my children, nothing changed — they’re loved, they’re happy.”

But Lewis, who works as a school bus matron, said the kids recognize that the paperwork brings a new sense of permanency.

“They know now that no one from the agency is coming by the house to question them, that no one’s going to take them from the home,” said Lewis. “And they’re happy about that.”

The Importance of Family

ACS Commissioner David Hansell called November — which in 1995 was designated by then-President Bill Clinton to be a month focused on adoption, expanded from a week — one of the happiest times of the year.

Some of the presents children at Manhattan Family Court get after their adoptions are finalized.
Some of the presents children at Manhattan Family Court get after their adoptions are finalized. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I think it’s kind of appropriate that it’s the month that includes Thanksgiving, which is a holiday that’s all about family, and celebrating family and the importance of family in all of our lives,” he said at Brooklyn Family Court on Nov. 14.

“It’s also a very important time for us to raise awareness of the fact that there are still many, many children in New York City who are waiting to be adopted.”

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