TAMPA — For Farrol Thomas, the adoption hearing was just paperwork.
Curly-haired Jeremiah, 13 months old, had been living with Thomas since he was born. She already considered him a son.
But on Friday, as Thomas sat in a courtroom with Jeremiah in her arms, she started to cry.
"It's important," she said. "I heard and I see that there really are children that don't have anybody."
Thomas, 36, was among 14 families that adopted 24 children, from toddlers to preteens, on Friday during National Adoption Day at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse.
One by one, each family was called into the courtroom. Toddlers squealed and giggled. Bailiffs handed out teddy bears to each child. Some parents cried and others smiled as a judge granted them parental rights.
In Hillsborough, 160 foster children are available for adoption, according to Eckerd Community Alternatives, which serves as the county's foster care agency. More than 300 were adopted last year.
More than a year ago, Thomas' church became involved with the Heart Gallery of Tampa Bay.
The pastor asked congregants to open their hearts.
She signed up to become a foster parent. Days later, Jeremiah arrived at her Lutz home.
After growing out of the foster care system, Jeremiah's mom had trouble with drugs and prostitution, Thomas said. She lost her parental rights.
But she texts Thomas every month to ask about Jeremiah: Is he walking? Can you send me photographs? Tell him I said happy birthday.
Thomas is a teacher and a single mother of two other sons, ages 2 and 11.
"I can love a child," she said. "That's really what these kids need."
Before the hearings, some adoptive parents and adoptees spoke to the crowd.
Among them was Keisha Denton, who was adopted when she was a baby. Her biological mother was 13 years old when she was born.
Now a senior at Brandon High, Keisha is involved in the ROTC, among other clubs, and hopes to attend the University of Central Florida.
"Adoption was a turnaround point in my life," Keisha said. "Adoption has given me, and I'm sure numerous other kids, a second chance at life."
On Friday after the hearings, a reception was held for the families. Kids played in an arts and crafts area. Families took their first official family portraits.
Thomas sat in a chair, with Jeremiah next to her in a stroller. She fed him bits of chicken as 2-year-old Immanuel sprinted across the room with a pirate sword made from a balloon.
"It's me and my boys," Thomas said, smiling.
After Thomas' hearing, the Sharpe family was next.
Walter and Linda Sharpe tried to settle into their chairs while keeping ahold of two squirming little girls dressed in pink.
The girls were sisters Leea, 3, and Anna, 2. They were placed in foster care as newborns. Their mother took drugs while pregnant with both.
The Sharpes took in Leea first. She shook and screamed so loudly at night that Linda and Walter took turns pacing the bedroom while holding her.
When Anna came, the couple did the same routine.
The girls have two other sisters, ages 7 and 8, who live with a grandmother. The Sharpes take all the sisters on trips, from the zoo to the movies.
In June, they adopted Leea, who loves Dora the Explorer and Hello Kitty.
On Friday, it was Anna's turn.
A bailiff handed the girls two teddy bears, one white, the other pink.
"I want the pink one!" Leea shouted. She hugged the bear and slipped under the table as her sister giggled and tried to poke Walter in the eye.
"I'm not sure what it was about these two," Walter said. "They just got our hearts."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727)893-8713, or [email protected]