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Amid tragedies, adoptions bring hope to Tampa Bay kids

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times  John Karl, 45, plays with his newly adopted son Riley Karl, 5, after the Adoption Day ceremony held at the Pinellas County Justice Center on Friday. John and his wife, Tracey, tried to conceive children of their own but after a few failed adoption attempts they were successful in adopting Riley.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times John Karl, 45, plays with his newly adopted son Riley Karl, 5, after the Adoption Day ceremony held at the Pinellas County Justice Center on Friday. John and his wife, Tracey, tried to conceive children of their own but after a few failed adoption attempts they were successful in adopting Riley.
Published Nov. 9, 2018

LARGO — They arrived at the courthouse almost matching.

The boy's button-down was the same shade as his mother's shirt, although that wasn't planned. The boy's short blond hair was swept into a miniature mohawk like his dad's, and that was, perhaps, on purpose.

"He likes to dress like his dad," Tracey Karl said of her son, Riley, and husband, John.

They headed into the courthouse and took their seats in the audience as the program began. Karl, 49, thought she would be nervous. But really, she was just excited.

The family was only finalizing what they've known to be true since Riley, 5, came to live with them three months ago from foster care. They were one of 24 families with 33 children participating Friday in Pinellas County Adoption Day organized by the Pinellas-Pasco Judicial Circuit at the county Criminal Justice Center.

The event came soon after three local tragedies involving kids who had contact with the child welfare system. In August, Shakayla Denson tossed her 4-year-old daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, into the Hillsborough River, according to police. Child protective investigators had cleared the mother weeks earlier of an allegation that she wasn't properly caring for her daughter.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Child protective investigation found no concerns about 4-year-old days before her death in Hillsborough River.

A month later, Jordan Belliveau was found dead in the woods of Largo, his mother now behind bars accused of killing him. The 2-year-old had recently been returned to his birth mother after a year and a half with a foster family.

Last month, a dog mauled a 7-month-old girl to death in Clearwater. Khloe Williams had been living in foster care after investigators determined her mom couldn't care for her. The dog belonged to her foster grandparents.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Largo mom accused of killing 2-year-old Jordan Belliveau had her own fraught childhood.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: New details emerge in fatal dog attack on Clearwater 7-month-old.

Now, another month later, children with their own tough backgrounds came in strollers, hiked up on hips and holding hands with their new parents, each with a chance for hope. With the stroke of a judge's pen that morning, they would become family.

"Many have had a difficult journey to get to this point," Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino told participants.

For Riley, that meant two parents addicted to drugs, his father in jail, his mother now living out of state, the Karls said. He was taken from his parents once as an infant, then again months later. His mom had tried to clean up, but then they were found homeless, living in a park in St. Petersburg, and he went back into the system.

For Tracey and John, that meant 21 of their 23 years of marriage trying to become parents. They endured two miscarriages, one failed in vitro fertilization, private adoptions that unraveled. They moved to Florida three years ago, and starting the adoption process was one of the first things they did.

But that, too, proved tumultuous. Their paper work was misplaced several times, they said. They quickly realized how over-burdened Florida's child welfare system is, how there just aren't enough hours in a day. They almost gave up, telling themselves God had a plan.

Meanwhile, Riley, had started the adoption process with another family. It fell through. The Karls got a phone call.

They met their potential son at a McDonald's. John asked if he wanted to order lunch. Riley took his hand. He ordered more McNuggets than a 5-year-old could reasonably eat, plus French fries and a Sprite.

He moved into their Land 'O Lakes home three months ago, to a former guest room now full of new furniture and a bed with a comforter inspired by The Incredibles 2, his favorite movie. He's a happy kid, nearly perfect, his mom said. He's taken to the family's three dogs, especially River the beagle, a rescue, "like me," he once told his mom. He's only had one temper tantrum sparked by exhaustion. He even loves vegetables, especially green beans, although he sticks to chicken fingers and macaroni when they eat out.

Sometimes, he'll talk about his troubled past, like when he said his bed was much more comfortable than the park. But for the most part, he doesn't seem to remember.

"The very first time we met him, it was like he had been in our lives forever," Tracey Karl said. "What you see now is what we got on day one."

What everyone saw was a blue-eyed child with dimples, sitting between his parents, their fingers interlaced; the father hoisting the boy upside down to get him to smile, and show those dimples, while they waited in a hallway; the mother bringing the child a slice of pizza, catching him in the act of dessert before lunch with a packet of Skittles, and letting it slide, because this was his day.

They gathered outside the courtroom with their adoption attorney, Riley's longtime Guardian Ad Litem and a Lutheran Services Florida caseworker. The judge was running behind. John Karl, 45, turned to attention every time the bailiff stepped out of the courtroom.

"Karl? Karl?" he'd ask.

Finally, the bailiff returned again, announcing Riley's name. They filed into the courtroom, waited just a little bit longer watching other families make the commitment they were about to make through tears and tissues. Then, it was their turn.

"There's a love that you see just shines out," said Cindy Johnson, Riley's guardian since he was in diapers, as she recommended the adoption.

Johnson took the paper work to Judge Kimberly Todd. The Karls squeezed hands under the table as Todd signed her name.

The family met in the middle, kissing their new son on each cheek.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.