Mary Ann and Stuart Hagerty were driving from New Jersey to Florida just before Christmas 2010 when she turned to him. "This is going to be it," she said. "We're going to get her this time."
For months, the Hagertys had tried to adopt their 2-year-old granddaughter, a brown-eyed blond they had nicknamed Paga.
In the back was a pile of wrapped presents: pink Legos, a toy vacuum cleaner, a baby doll.
Florida child protection investigators had removed the girl after the Hagertys' son and his girlfriend had a violent fight. So the Hagertys had stepped in.
The Hagertys had been married almost 43 years, had held the same jobs for nearly as long. They'd never had a speeding ticket.
They hadn't expected to be caring for a child at their age, but they were determined. They'd taken child development courses, passed a rigorous background check, spent $15,000, much of it on lawyers, to get custody of Paga.
But a few days later, inside a Pasco County courtroom, their granddaughter's court-appointed advocate told the judge the Hagertys "did not want to adopt."
Mary Ann gasped loudly. Nothing was further from the truth.
"Wait a second. Mr. Bailiff, would you escort those folks out of the courtroom?," said the judge. "I find them disruptive."
Inexplicably, a system that is supposed to keep families together when possible was tossing these grandparents out of the courtroom — and out of their granddaughter's life.
Paga was born in North Carolina in January 2009. She was the Hagertys' first grandchild and they were eager to see her.
But Stuart had had heart bypass surgery the month before so the couple waited until February to visit.
Mary Ann and Stuart arrived with a baby carriage, a cradle and a crib. Paga, whose real name is not being used in this story to protect her identity, fell asleep in Mary Ann's arms.
The Hagertys knew that their son, Patrick, 36, and his girlfriend, K'Tina White, 26, had problems. Together for six years, they sometimes argued violently.
After a fight in their driveway in the summer of 2009, Paga and her two half siblings, ages 5 and 6, were removed and placed with their maternal grandmother. Caseworkers removed them a month later because of suspicious people in the home. Paga (pronounced Pah-jah) ended up in foster care.
Patrick and K'Tina tried to get Paga back, but the couple tested positive for drugs and Patrick was again charged with domestic violence.
With Patrick and K'Tina on their way to losing custody of Paga, the system looked to the next closest relatives as permanent caregivers. In this case, as in most cases, it was the grandparents.
Many of the 10,733 abused or neglected children in Florida who are placed with family members or friends live with grandparents, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.
The Hagertys came down a month after Paga was removed and spoke with her caseworker. They seemed reluctant initially to take the little girl. They wanted her to go back to her parents. It's where they felt she belonged.
"I said I'd rather the process go forward before we decided if we adopted," Stuart said.
But they made it clear to caseworkers, they said, that if Patrick and K'Tina didn't get their act together, they were willing to adopt their granddaughter.
Mary Ann Hagerty, 67, is a retired administrative assistant who worked for Johnson & Johnson for 42 years. Stuart, 71, was a mechanical designer with a research center for 38 years. Their retirement revolved around time-shares they visited in Hilton Head Island, St. Kitts and Puerto Vallarta.
In the spring of 2010, caseworkers in Florida wanted to know if the Hagertys were willing to adopt the little girl. People told the Hegartys they were crazy to adopt a young child at their age. But they decided she was family. They needed to do this for her.
So they initiated a home study with child welfare workers in New Jersey. This involved three visits to their home, criminal background checks, a review of their finances and medical appointments to determine if they were fit enough to care for a young child.
By the summer of 2010, the couple had taken 28 hours of courses on subjects like attachment and loss.
They thought it was only a matter of time before they brought her home.
• • •
In September 2010, the Hagertys drove down to Florida and visited their granddaughter at Eckerd Community Alternatives offices.
Mary Ann got down on the floor with the little girl and played with Legos.
Paga's caseworker, Elaine Cole, and court-appointed advocate, Vicki Mitvalsky, stood in the doorway. They asked questions that they had asked before: Did the Hagertys want to adopt? Would they be able to sever contact with their son?
Mary Ann says she was engrossed with the child and never heard the question. But Stuart says he told them they would do whatever it takes to adopt the child.
"But I wanted to know exactly what they were talking with regard to severing contact," Stuart said.
The next day in a Pasco County courtroom, Mitvalsky testified that Mary Ann would not answer the question, that she would not even make eye contact.
"They can't say that they will protect by keeping Patrick away" from his daughter, Mitvalsky continued.
Stuart and Mary Ann felt ambushed. Mary Ann says she didn't realize her visit with Paga was an interview.
The Hagertys were battling a perception, created early on, that they could not see their son's flaws and only wanted to adopt Paga to give her back to him. No matter what they said, the child welfare workers seemed unwilling to change their minds.
"I think what the case manager and the guardian are alleging may have been parents who in the beginning … put a whole lot of hope in Patrick," Patrick's attorney, Loretta Silvestri, said at the hearing. "I think they realize at this time that that is not a possibility. … They're willing to keep Patrick out of her life."
Stuart reiterated once again their desire to adopt. But he still didn't understand to what degree they had to keep Patrick out of their own lives.
"Patrick's my son," Stuart said in court. "They said that I can never have contact with him again. That is totally out of the question. … If I see Patrick on the street, I can't talk to him?"
• • •
In November 2010, Pasco Judge William Webb terminated Patrick and K'Tina's parental rights. The only question now was: Who would get Paga?
Webb has been handling dependency cases in Pasco for years. The Hagertys had heard a lot about him. People in and out of the courtroom called him "God."
For the past 15 months, Paga had been with foster parents who said they didn't want to adopt her.
The Hagertys wanted their granddaughter, but they had no right to speak during the court proceedings. So they had hired an attorney.
"Grandparents in Florida have very limited rights," said their lawyer, Kerry O'Connor.
O'Connor said this case is a perfect example of why the law should be changed, but her only legal recourse was to seek standing as an "adoption intermediary" on the Hagertys' behalf.
The Hagertys wanted an opportunity to explain directly to the judge that they wanted to adopt Paga and they would not let Patrick see her. The caseworkers were misrepresenting them, they said.
Stuart acknowledged that for a long time he was in denial about his son's drug use.
"He lied to me all along," Stuart said. "But recently people came forward and I realized, 'Yes, he has a problem.' "
He recently told his son, an auto mechanic who spent four years in the Marines, to "straighten up or I'm done."
But Judge Webb rejected O'Connor's request to intervene. In addition to herself, O'Connor had listed her law firm on the grandparents' request. It was a small legal discrepancy, but it meant the Hagertys would not be able to speak in court.
• • •
In December 2010, Judge Webb shut them out completely. That was the hearing when he removed them from his courtroom. That was the hearing when he entered an order denying their lawyer the right to intervene.
His order relied heavily on the lingering doubts that caseworkers had about the Hagertys:
The grandparents were only trying to adopt the child to give her to their son. The Hagertys were reluctant initially to take the child because Stuart had had heart bypass surgery. The Hagertys initially had said the girl should be reunited with her father. The Hagertys had bonded their son out of jail and helped him with legal fees.
In a phone interview last week, Webb said his utmost concern in every adoption is the best interests of the child. He said he always looks for relatives and friends first.
In this case, he said, he reviewed all eight volumes and after looking at all the testimony, "I was satisfied they would not protect the child from the father."
And what about the fact that the Hagertys had now said several times — including once in open court — they wanted to adopt her and protect her?
"Simply because someone says something doesn't mean that that's their real motivation," Webb said. "Eckerd's and the guardian ad litem's position is that it was a sham, that the grandparents were so supportive of their son in all ways that they were blinded to his ongoing substance abuse. That it would be an adoption in name only. That it would not be in the best interest of the child … I concluded in my order that that was accurate."
• • •
This past April, K'Tina and Patrick had another baby. He was born in Hillsborough County. He had brain swelling and other medical problems.
Caseworkers removed him from K'Tina's custody.
A Hillsborough County judge allowed Stuart and Mary Ann Hagerty to take the child home.
When the judge asked Mary Ann in court if they would keep the child away from his parents, she said they would. And she said they have honored that pledge.
"I said 'I promise, it's not a problem,' " Mary Ann said.
• • •
Caseworkers had always told the Hagertys that Paga would be sought after. In fact, the child protection investigator who initially removed her from her parents had tried to adopt her until someone said it was a conflict of interest.
On Feb. 1, a hearing was held in Webb's courtroom to discuss Paga's adoption. It has remained unresolved for 2 1/2 years because the foster parents who originally had her kept changing their minds about adopting her. They didn't want her, then they did, then they didn't again.
The Hagertys filed another motion to intervene. Webb denied their request again.
In August, Paga was placed with new foster parents who said they wanted to adopt her. The adoptive mother is a probation officer with the Department of Juvenile Justice, who sometimes appears in Webb's courtroom.
Then the final adoption hearing, which had been set for Tuesday, was canceled.
April Putzulu, a spokeswoman for Eckerd, stressed that Eckerd is committed to placing children with family members.
"The case you referenced is a particularly complex case that involves at least two judicial circuits, three states and multiple system of care partners," she wrote in an email to the Times. "We want to stress that no final decisions have been made in this case."
Paga recently turned 3. Her grandparents still want to bring her home to her brother.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected]