Charles Parks, 14, was in foster care for 10 years. He, along with Kyle and Robyn Matthews, had lived through their own tragedies.
Circuit Judge Katherine Essrig had presided over Charles' case for years and worried that the Matthewses might not be up to the challenge. Then she clicked on a link and read their blog at becauseofezra.org.
"It added a whole other dimension," she said. "I feel like I know them. I don't always feel like that."
On Friday, she pronounced them family: Charles is now the son of Kyle and Robyn, and brother of 3-year-old Charley.
In October, Charles had put his bags in the trunk of Kyle's BMW and begged him to spin out from the group foster home. They pulled into the driveway at the Matthews home in Carrollwood. Charles put up his Los Angeles Lakers pictures. He placed a plastic bag with his mother's cremated remains on his dresser behind a picture of her and next to a Gators football helmet.
The Matthewses had placed the frame of the crib where their first baby had slept on a wall in little Charley's play area. They clipped photos with clothespins to it, a newborn, a toddler in the hospital with no hair.
Kyle and Robyn had three children once upon a time, but never all together at home. On the first night Charles was there, he and Charley filled the house with roaring laughter.
Finally, it felt like a family.
• • •
When Kyle and Robyn meet someone, they answer the typical questions. Married seven years. They had four kids. Now they have two.
"We're instantly talking about deep things in our polite conversations," Kyle said. Usually, people respond by telling them about their own losses. "We get to see people's hearts very quickly," Kyle said.
For a year after 2-year-old Ezra and 1-week-old Price died, both in 2010, Robyn said her skin hurt. But then the pain moved into her bones.
As they worked through the loss, Kyle and Robyn vowed to be open with each other; there are no things that are not okay to say. They vowed to not be bitter. They channeled their anger into a nonprofit they founded with the goal of curing pediatric cancer. They tell their stories to keep Ezra and Price alive and to educate people, hoping to inspire others to help.
"I will always have grief," Robyn said. "I don't necessarily want that to go away. It's an interesting thing. It gives me compassion."
Two years after their two children died, Robyn and Kyle started to talk about adopting.
• • •
Kyle and Robyn first saw Charles featured in the Children's Board Heart Gallery.
In a video interview, he talked about his favorite basketball player, Kobe Bryant, and his ideal day: playing outside with friends.
In August, the couple was cleared to visit Charles at his group home. They stopped by on a Saturday to drop off a book they made for him. It was a story about them that started when they met.
They had pictures of Ezra, their firstborn, who was a toddler in 2009 when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a Stage 4 cancer. Then the twins, born prematurely. Charley weighed 1 pound, 15 ounces; Price weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces, and lived just a week.
Charles flipped through it looking at pictures of Kyle and Robyn goofing off. In one, they wore funny outfits.
Then a staff member who didn't realize that they hadn't been cleared to have him off-campus said: "If you guys could be back by 9 p.m."
It was 11 a.m. The rules aim for a slow progression.
But Kyle, 32, and Robyn, 28, say their losses have shaped them so that they tend to take opportunities as they are presented, and sometimes disregard rules (but not laws).
This felt right. So the three of them rode off to a park. When Kyle started climbing a tree, he remembers Charles saying, "Really?"
Robyn says she sometimes feels like both Kyle and Charles are teenagers. But she climbed the tree, too.
They spent a long day playing and kayaking. Charles learned that the Matthewses were fun.
"We fit together," he said. "They fit my personality."
Charles brought a camera and took pictures. When they signed him back into the home with the other boys, he stepped around two other boys to say goodbye to Robyn.
He hugged her tightly.
That's when she knew.
"It was like when they lay your baby on you after birth," she said.
They left the book of them.
On the last page, under a picture of Kyle and Charles leaving a baseball game during one of the first times they met, they had written: "And then we met you …"
• • •
Charles has lived in a dozen foster homes since he was 4. Last year, his brother aged out of the system. He has a little sister, who was about 4 when they were separated.
A year ago, his mother was hit by a car and died.
Charles' last home, Carlton Manor in St. Petersburg, had 10 teenage boys and a dismal record of adoptions. He had to ask for permission to do nearly anything, even move from his seat. Refrigerators were not to be opened. He couldn't have a phone. And cameras were everywhere.
"There's no freedom," Charles said.
Things are different with the Matthews family.
"I don't have to hide stuff, even though I still do," he said. "I hid my wallet in a tissue box and then I couldn't find it."
He likes to play with Charley, who follows him around and mimics Charles. Charley could say about 10 words when Charles moved in. Now he's up to about 40.
Perhaps the biggest difference: "Everybody loves each other here," Charles said.
• • •
Kyle and Robyn traveled for a few weeks after the day with Charles. When they returned, they stopped back for a visit.
Charles had made them a book about himself.
It told of how he was taken from his birth family and stuck with a horrible family.
"I was so mad I could have punched a hole in a brick wall," he wrote.
He also had a picture of his mother, with the letters RIP. There were pictures of a brother and a sister.
There were pages of fun facts about him.
He is good at playing cards. He likes sports and rock climbing. But he said he doesn't like to run because he's as slow as a turtle.
On the last page, he taped a picture of Kyle and Robyn in the tree from the day they spent together.
Under that he wrote:
And along came the ...
robyn & kyle
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected]