DADE CITY — In the middle of presiding over parents with addictions, legal troubles and children caught in the mess, the judge veered from the trail of broken families to put a new one together.
Nevaeh White, 15 months old and unaware that Wednesday was the occasion of her adoption, was carried forward and placed in a tall black leather chair. She held a red Elmo doll and wore a pink gingham dress with shiny black shoes.
Her adoptive parents are actually her grandparents, the people she has lived with since she was 2 weeks old.
On the bench, Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper's voice softened and brightened. In the audience, the mothers and fathers who have to attend anger management classes and get to see their kids only under supervision smiled for a little while.
And standing to the side, asking questions confidently but never claiming the spotlight, was an auburn-haired attorney who has brought people to this moment hundreds of times before.
These cases, which begin with no cookie-cutter reason for why a child is without a family and end with that child at the heart of a whole new one, are the reason Nancy Alfonso comes to work every day.
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She gets the cases all different ways.
Adoption agencies call her to complete the complex web of paperwork involved in international adoptions. Stepparents come to her for help adopting their stepchildren.
She picks up where child welfare agencies have left off, terminating the rights of birth parents while ushering along the accompanying adoption case for the new parents.
And then there are, literally, walk-ins — pregnant women unable to keep their babies who see her ad in the phone book. Such women also are referred to Alfonso by hospitals, obstetricians and community health agencies who know she does this work.
"She has an excellent reputation," said Judge Tepper.
Alfonso, 47, started this work after joining her dad, Joe McClain, in his local law practice. It was about 1990. They knocked on the door at the home of some new parents and handed them their child, and she was hooked.
"I thought, I'd love to do nothing but this because it's so happy," Alfonso said recently.
She still keeps a baby car seat on hand for those house calls.
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She grew up in Dade City with five sisters, and met her husband, Dennis, in law school at Stetson University. They now practice law together.
Before her kids were born, Alfonso was elected to the City Commission. She networked and got involved in service groups.
Her son is now 13 and her daughter is 12. Alfonso, though out of politics, has always been a working mom, bending her schedule around the kids' lives.
In her practice she also handles divorces, wills and bankruptcies. Adoptions, which account for about a quarter of her work, are the bright spot.
She loves the little things: the looks on the new parents' faces; the bravery of the birth moms; the way, despite all the variables, each case seems to work out just as it should.
Andy and Jennifer Klymenko, who live in Wesley Chapel, endured a lot of frustration trying to have a child, then met with Alfonso after learning about her through Andy's mother. Nearly a year passed, and they even had a couple of near-misses trying to adopt, when Alfonso called out of the blue last January.
"(She) said a little baby was born, would you like to adopt her?" Jennifer, 37, said.
Andy, 39, was on the verge of opening his own law practice, and they had no time to get ready for a baby, but they see that whirlwind as a blessing now.
"It was a big upheaval but also the happiest thing that's ever happened to us," Jennifer said.
Alfonso, they said, moved like clockwork, scheduling hearings, explaining the process, minimizing their anxiety. More than that, Andy said, she gave them hope.
Their daughter, Katy, is almost 2 now.
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Alfonso has picked up a few habits in 19 years of doing this. She keeps a list, sometimes 40 names deep, of prospective adoptive parents. They fill out questionnaires in which they describe themselves and their backgrounds and their preferences for future children. A girl or a boy. An older child or a baby only. A child of a different race.
Alfonso takes into account the birth mom's hopes too — such as families of a certain religion or those with other children already — so she can make good matches.
For the private adoptions, in which the two sides normally never meet, she makes sure the birth mom obtains prenatal care and counseling for her decision. She helps the new parents get ready and acts as their stand-in at the hospital — snapping pictures of the baby being prepped to leave, dressing it up in a special outfit for the homecoming.
"I try to do things that you want to capture that they're not able to be there for," she said. "When my kids were born — you just want to be able to remember everything."
And there's this: flowers for the birth mom to thank her for what she has given.
"It's such a wonderful thing that they're doing — and such a difficult thing," she said.
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Alfonso always asks her clients, during the final hearing in front of the judge, why they want to adopt.
She hears myriad reasons, always unique, always emotion-filled.
This is how Nathan White, the 57-year-old union official with five grown kids who is starting over with his granddaughter, answered: "It's the right thing to do. We love her to death."
And Alfonso asked him, almost as a smiling formality, "You understand this is a permanent decision?"
"Lifetime," White said. "Until death do us part."
Tepper made a fuss over Nevaeh, giving her a storybook and a teddy bear complete with its own certificate, for her to adopt.
"Will you keep this forever and remember today?" the judge asked the toddler.
Out in the audience, parents at risk of losing their own children smiled at the joyous sight.
Before the newly completed White family made their way out into the rain, Alfonso sat with them, answering questions and absorbing their glow.
Nevaeh, who had finished with acting shy, showed off her new treasures. She put her bear on a bench, and then handed it to Alfonso, then took it back to the bench, then back to Alfonso.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.