Social worker Connie Going drove 10-year-old Taylor to dinner at Ruby Tuesday's.
The dinners were part of her routine with Taylor, who had been in and out of foster care and group homes since he was a preschooler. One attempt at adoption had failed. The boy was headstrong, and the father punished him by forcing him to take cold showers and run laps.
On the drive to the restaurant, Taylor posed the question: "Why don't you adopt me?"
Going ran through the excuses in her mind. She already had two kids. She was going through a divorce. She had a demanding job. Taylor deserved better.
"There are so many families out there that are so much better than me," she told him.
• • •
Going, 50, first met Taylor when he was 31/2. He was an outgoing kid, with a wide, dimpled smile but had drug-addicted parents. His two sisters were too young to take care of him. Going tried to keep the siblings together as is the goal of the child welfare system. Contrary to popular belief, about 75 percent of children who are taken from their homes are returned to their parents, according to Eckerd Community Alternatives, the agency that handles foster care for Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Taylor and his sisters were the exception. They were adopted by a family. The girls acclimated, but Taylor and the father had personality conflicts. The boy ended up in foster care.
Taylor spent most of the next decade in group and foster homes. Determined to find him a forever family, Going had him featured several times on a local television segment called "Wednesday's Child." She had his photo taken for a display organized by the Heart Gallery, a nonprofit agency that features enlarged professional portraits of children available for adoption.
"He had a lot of anger issues," Going recalled. That resulted in outbursts, sometimes several a day.
Once, Taylor had broken a rule at the home and was put in his room. He responded by throwing a chair repeatedly against the wall.
Going asked the staff to let her go in. Are you sure? they said.
"He literally leaped across the room and threw himself on me and sobbed. It went on for about an hour. I remember thinking, 'Who holds our kids in these programs?' "
• • •
Going kept working to find a family for Taylor. She estimates that she has handled 2,000 adoptions during the course of her 15 years in the field.
"I believe there's a family for every child," she said.
She sees kids who have been traumatized due to abuse or dysfunction. Still, she managed to close her file cabinet and go home at the end of every day.
She found a glimmer of hope for Taylor last year, when a family with four children wanted to adopt him. He was placed in the home, and the family moved to Tacoma, Wash. But the effort failed, and the family put Taylor on a plane bound for Florida.
Going imagined the hurt Taylor must have been feeling.
"You know that ache you get in your chest when your child is crying?" she said. "I felt that. At that moment, he became my child."
She asked her boss to remove her as Taylor's social worker. In October, she got court permission to let him move into her Largo home.
It wasn't perfect. Going went from being the fun companion who took him out to eat to the mom who says no to a request for an eyebrow piercing.
"He did not like the mom," she said. "I wasn't the superwoman anymore. I make mistakes. I have a job and other responsibilities."
On Friday, the adoption became final in a Dade City courtroom.
"Who is this handsome young man?" gushed Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who last saw Taylor when he was 11.
After swearing everyone in and going through the required questions, Tepper called Taylor to the bench. She handed him a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit.
"It's a very special book," she said. "It's about a rabbit who became real because he was really, really loved."
Afterward, Taylor posed for photos with his new family. Tepper passed out the tissues.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.