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Pasco family yearning for adoption finds uphill climb in court

Jordan Alexander, 17, and his determined parents, Joe and Patti Terry, check in March 15 at the judicial center in New Port Richey.
Jordan Alexander, 17, and his determined parents, Joe and Patti Terry, check in March 15 at the judicial center in New Port Richey.
Published Mar. 23, 2013

His real mother left him for the first time when he was 5 months old. His grandmother, worried that young Jordan Miguel Alexander might fall into the hands of the state of Delaware, asked his nurse for help. Patti Terry was in her early 40s then, and already had some kids of her own. But she couldn't say no. Not to Jordan.

"His mom took off one day with some guy, and Jordan's grandparents called and asked me if I could take him for a day or two," she said. "And that was it."

Patti Terry, 58, and her husband, Joe, 53, never hid the fact that Jordan, now 17, had other parents. All four parents had full parental rights, but none had guardianship of Jordan. The courts allowed visits. His birth parents, Jordan said, are different. There was so much lying and so many false promises. There was pill powder up noses and get-togethers with gang members, and the real possibility of a different life for Jordan — had one of his parents tried to get him back. But neither pushed for custody, and the Terrys never pushed for adoption.

When Jordan reached his teens, Joe Terry heard the words he and his wife yearned for from the first day they brought him home.

"I want to be a Terry."

"It's an honor," Joe Terry said. "We've been waiting his whole life for him to say it."

The Terrys moved to New Port Richey from Delaware a few years ago because Joe Terry got sick, and the warm weather suited him. He and his wife had worked and met as respiratory therapists. These days, Joe Terry draws disability and Patti Terry works at Target, a job she enjoys for its lack of stress. Jordan is a high school student at River Ridge.

Because of the move, they've been wrangling with courts in both states to finish the adoption process. They've been through petitions and hearings and seemingly endless waiting periods. It has been two years.

"I just think it's weird it's taking so long," Jordan said. "I want to be adopted. I'm going to be relieved when it happens. It'll be a new chapter in my life. One day, when I have kids, they'll have the same last name."

The problem now is that the process is more difficult than the words ever were.

"Adoption takes a long time," said the couple's lawyer, Margaret O'Neill. "It's not an ordinary case. If they had done this before they moved from Delaware, it would've been simple. They didn't decide to adopt him until after they had moved him."

The adoption process is designed to protect all parties involved, O'Neill said.

April Putzulu agrees. "He wants permanency," said the spokeswoman for Eckerd Community Alternatives, an organization that handles child welfare and dependency in Pasco County. "All our children deserve permanency."

Jordan is one of 100,000 foster children waiting to be adopted in the United States; 750 in Florida; and 120 in Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to Eckerd statistics.

"It's case by case," she said. "Every case is unique and that's what makes our system of care so unique."

Jordan's case is based on jurisdiction, parental rights and due diligence. First, the Terrys needed to prove they were good parents and file for guardianship, which is different than having parental rights. Next, they had to terminate parental rights for Jordan's birth parents. The problem was, no one knew where they were, and in that event, Florida law requires an affidavit of due diligence. Not easy.

O'Neill said she is not licensed to practice law in Delaware, so she hired someone to maneuver through the steps that crossed state lines. Those steps included taking out a newspaper ad announcing intentions; searching all telephone listings; contacting law enforcement; researching death records; searching armed forces records; searching tax assessor and collector records and even an Internet databank locator service; and contacting all known relatives.

Once that was done, they went to court in Pasco and were told the jurisdiction was in Delaware. They wrote a letter to a judge in that state, and he said he wasn't signing any papers because the Terrys hadn't notified the birth parents, and they were no longer Delaware residents.

A month later, they went through a process of notifying the parents again. A letter came back undelivered. Still, the judge in Delaware declined again, Joe Terry said.

The latest plan, O'Neill said, was a letter trying to set up a conference call between the judges.

The Terry family, frustrated and tired of waiting for something to happen, decided to do something about it. A week ago they walked into the West Pasco Judicial Center and asked for the courtroom of the judge handling the case.

Jordan put his head on his mother's shoulder. They went to the third floor, and Joe Terry stood with his hands in his pockets and spoke to a speaker in a wall. Hunched over, his face furrowed, he pleaded his case. A tinny voice through a wall said he could write a letter. They walked away.

In Jordan's room, there is a medal, and on his desk a folded flag. In the closet, a war uniform. They all belonged to Patti Terri's father, a veteran. Jordan holds the items with pride. He wants to join the military and on the uniform he wants it to say one name: Terry.

Jon Silman can be reached at (727) 869-6229 or jsilman@tampabay.com.

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