The sisters couldn't stand still.
Kindra, 4, hung from the doorknobs of the courtroom, kicking her feet up. Saira, 5, tapped on the keys of the court reporter's keyboard. Earlier, when Melissa Maynard was coaching her girls to the right floor, Trinidy, 7, had run ahead to the escalators, dancing.
The girls had been this way all Friday morning, waking themselves up early at 6 a.m. After a breakfast of oatmeal and whipped cream, they scrambled into their matching velvet blouses, polka dot skirts and white tights. Maynard, 41, had bought the outfits from Macy's especially for the day, and she wore her own special accessory — a silver pendant that read "Mother."
The girls had come into Maynard's life five years ago, when Trinidy was just a toddler. When their mother, Maynard's cousin, couldn't take care of them, she took over.
For the last year, they had been living in her west Pasco County home. On this day, their adoptions would be made official.
Eighteen children had come to the Pinellas County Courthouse for their adoption's last step — the adoptive parents' finalizing of their rights as a "forever home." The usually private ruling was opened as the court celebrated Adoption Day. Guardians ad litem and child-welfare workers from Eckerd Youth Alternatives, who had stood beside the children over years of hearings, came out to see the final step.
Maynard knew the process well. Her girls would be her family's third generation of adoptees — she, like her stepfather, Bruce Rouslin, was adopted.
Maynard's friend Shirley Whitehead, 48, was still fighting to comb the girls' blond hair into position when a bailiff opened the courtroom door.
It was mostly empty.
The girls were the first inside.
• • •
Kellie Akehurst and her puggle dog, Jimmy, went from room to room Friday, waking up her girls.
Kellie, 38, a personal chef for the Tampa Bay Rays, and her husband Andrew, 40, who sells hurricane screens, had agreed four years ago to adopt two children. When the coordinator asked them this year whether they would take three, they hesitated.
"Our main concern," Kellie said, "was could we give three children everything they need?"
Their first meeting with the girls — Dedra, 10, Callee, 6, and Kayla, 5 — was a bit awkward. The sisters, who spent most of their lives bouncing between foster homes, weren't sure how they should act with new people. Kellie and Andrew were scared to death — what do you say to the kids who could be yours?
By the end of their first meeting, though, they knew they had found a match. Kellie and Andrew began scheduling play dates every day. "Once we started seeing them, it was hard to leave them," she said.
The girls, who have six older adopted siblings, moved in to the Akehursts' Clearwater home in August. Kellie and Andrew moved out of their master bedroom, the biggest room in the house, and gave it to Kayla and Callee. Dedra got her own room — the first she has ever had — decorated with kittens and butterflies.
On Friday, after the girls had eaten their breakfast quiche, the family drove to the courthouse. The girls were overwhelmed by all the new people. When the judge told them to raise their right hands, each one of them did. By the end, when the adoption was official, Kellie had begun to cry.
When the family left, Andrew joked with the girls that they could do anything they wanted now. They told them they were just happy to be playing hooky with their parents.
From the back seat, as the family drove home, the girls competed over who could spell their new last name.
• • •
Trinidy, Saira and Kindra had explored most corners of the courtroom by the time Judge Irene Sullivan entered. Kindra had swiveled around in the courtroom's leather chairs. Saira had grabbed an I Spy book and found a seat in front of the judge's bench.
Sullivan's judicial assistant, Jerri Evans, laughed as a bailiff took pictures. "This is the most fun we've had here in months," she said.
After an attorney read the adoption papers, Sullivan asked the girls to raise their right hands. She asked Maynard why she wanted to become their mother.
"I've been able to watch them grow," she said, her voice wavering. "I want to be able to nurture them and love them and watch them become little girls."
"You've got three little spunky girls here," Sullivan said. "Of course, I'll approve the adoption."
Sullivan gave the girls stuffed bunnies as the family left the courtroom for pictures. Maynard led her daughters, tired from all the bouncing, downstairs and out of the courthouse.
"It's the best day of my life. I think I'm in a little bit of a shock that it finally happened," she said. "They're going to be in a forever home, where they belong."
Outside the courthouse, she and the girls crowded into Rouslin's camper. They were headed for a camping trip to Lake Manatee State Park.
That night, she and her girls planned to sleep in their own tent, under the stars.
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.