Stephanie woke before dawn and in the darkness she pictured what that day would look like, the judge, the courtroom, hugging her mom, and it felt like Christmas morning. • This was the day when Stephanie, a 17-year-old orphan with Down syndrome, would make it official. She and 26 other children were adopted Friday at the West Pasco Judicial Center in New Port Richey, in observance of National Adoption Day.
Stephanie had been looking forward to this day for months.
She would wear her new dress, tan with pink flowers. The woman she calls "mom" would become her official mom and they would wear matching pink and white corsages to court. She was getting a new name — Stephanie Westbrook, with the new middle name of Jasmine because it's her favorite flower. They were going to Red Lobster afterward to celebrate, where Stephanie would get biscuits and shrimp. And then they would go home.
"I'm happy," she said.
Her new mother is her special needs teacher at Hudson High School, Shelley Westbrook, a 54-year-old single woman who lives in Bayonet Point. She is willowy with glasses and a kind, quiet demeanor. She has two other adopted daughters who are in their 20s.
In the fall of 2010, Stephanie abruptly left school. When Westbrook asked why, she found out Stephanie's mother was dying and in hospice care. Stephanie's father, who had never been in her life, was dead. Stephanie was in foster care in Tampa. She hated it. She missed school.
Westbrook called Stephanie's case manager and asked if she could be her foster mother. The case manager asked Stephanie, who said, "Yes!" and she moved into Westbrook's home in October 2010.
They visited Stephanie's mother in hospice care. She passed away that December. Stephanie grieved.
"It's too much," Stephanie told Westbrook.
"It is a lot," Westbrook told her. "But you can make it. It's hard, but it's not too much."
They hugged a lot. They went to counseling. They went to church. They went to exercise classes together and cooked together and watched movies together.
Westbrook marveled at Stephanie's courage and strength and joy. She loved this child even more. At Stephanie's request, Westbrook began tucking her into bed every night, sides and feet, tight. They talk about their day and pray for people who aren't well and read the Bible. Stephanie won't go to sleep without a hug and a kiss.
"I want you to be my mom," Stephanie told Westbrook in early 2011. She said it as a statement. It wasn't a question. Westbrook had been planning to see if Stephanie would be okay with being adopted, but wanted to wait until Stephanie was ready.
"Okay," Westbrook said. She made sure it was fine with her other daughters and began the adoption process.
"Are you nervous?" Westbrook asked Stephanie on Friday morning.
"A little bit," she said.
"It's okay. You're going to be great," Westbrook said. When they walked into the courthouse, Stephanie became quiet, which is unusual for her. The second- floor hallway was packed with children and families and balloons and food and strollers. Stephanie picked a quiet seat to the side.
"Do you want a balloon?" Westbrook asked. Stephanie shook her head no. She lifted her head when McGruff the Crime Dog walked past.
"I know him," she said. She hugged him twice and felt more calm. By the time the ceremony began, she wasn't nervous at all.
"I'm ready," she said.
She wrapped her arms around Westbrook's waist and squeezed her and kissed her cheek. She held Westbrook's hands and rested her head on her shoulder. Westbrook glowed and looked at her soon-to-be daughter adoringly.
The austere courtrooms where the worst of humanity is displayed each day were decorated with a rainbow of colored balloons. A bailiff handed out teddy bears to the children after their adoptions were finalized. Stephanie named hers "Flower."
"My mom loves me," Stephanie said as she waited for her turn. "Always."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.