York County Court, SC grants 2020 final family adoption
York County Family Court heard its last three cases of 2020 on Monday.
“We spend the first 364 days in this building, sometimes tearing it apart,” ad-litem goalkeeper Stephen Schustermann said during his speech at the hearing. But the last three hearings were adoptions. On Tuesday, the court met to reunite the families – “to put things back together,” he said.
“I couldn’t think of a better way to end the year, or a better Christmas present than to have a final adoption so that a child has a forever home,” Judge David Guyton told the Herald at the start of the procedure.
“Put a face on a prayer”
Marla Ann Haffner, a Navy stationed at Rock Hill, was the day’s first witness. She cradled a baby in her arms, her wide eyes staring at her.
Her husband, Eugene Haffner, also a Marine, sat next to her. A child’s arms were wrapped around his neck – Nolan, 3, whom the couple adopted as a baby.
As she leaned into the microphone to answer the judge’s questions, she paused to calm the baby, causing him to bounce gently.
His name is Rocky. He was born prematurely and received his name in homage to Rocky Balboa, the legendary fighter of the cinema. Marla and her husband met Rocky when he was an hour old.
When she saw it, Haffner said, “It was like putting a face on a prayer.” She cried as she told reporters, “We prayed for what seemed like a lifetime for these children.”
Marla and Eugene had watched Rocky grow up, feed him, for three months.
Marla gave her name to the court and answered each question. Finally, Gutyon asked, “Do you love this child?”
“We absolutely love and adore it,” replied Marla.
Eugene then spoke up, Nolan still clinging to his neck.
“Do you need more time to make up your mind?” Guyton asked.
“No. We don’t need time anymore,” Eugene said, smiling at his wife.
He told the judge how he got to know Rocky; how he was a funny baby; and he would let you know when he wanted something. He explained how Nolan loved giving Rocky kisses, even though he thought Rocky was “a bit boring”.
They never doubted Rocky was theirs, Marla said. When he was sleeping and Marla, Eugene and Nolan were alone, she said she didn’t like it. He felt like he should always be there.
“There’s no reason why this adoption shouldn’t take place,” Schustermann said during her testimony, “But a million reasons why she should.”
Guyton agreed. “Congratulations. And thank you for your service.”
He signed a new birth certificate for Rocky. Now he was Rocky Liam Haffner.
‘It’s my little daughter’
Candice Gilliland, of Rock Hill, testified from inside her car, speaking via a webcam. She had tested positive for COVID-19 in the days leading up to her adoption hearing, but Gilliland refused to let that stop her.
She had fought to keep the blond pigtail child, sitting on her lap, alive since the child was 4 days old.
Gilliland named the child Laura Bethany Claire – Claire for short. Gilliland had been her adoptive mother from the day they met; now she would become his mother.
Claire was born with a drug addiction and spent seven weeks in the hospital after her birth. Gilliland was there. When the infant contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can be fatal to newborns, Gilliland was there. A nurse herself, Gilliland watched Claire’s heart rate monitor for days.
She watched, she said, Claire’s heart stopped 14 times. Gilliland did not give up.
A year later, Claire is being treated for seizures and seen regularly by a neurologist, Gilliland said. She was recently fitted with ankle braces to help her walk.
Gilliland continues to see her through it all. As Gilliland finished her story, Guyton asked, “Do you want more time to decide?”
“No,” Gilliland said. “It’s my little daughter.”
Claire began to babble.
“Claire agrees,” Schustermann said.
Claire’s biological parents have kept in touch, Gilliland said.
“You had the possibility that if you thought it would have been too much, you could have stepped back and said ‘no’. You stayed with Claire, ”Guyton said. “And even today, when you’re sick, you wanted to do that.”
He smiles as he addresses Gilliland.
“I have no doubt this adoption is in Claire’s best interest,” he said. “Claire will be known as Laura Bethany Claire Gilliland – and you, Mrs Gilliland, will be referred to as her biological mother.” Gilliland cried as she thanked the judge.
As she ended the video call, a beaming, pigtailed face entered the frame.
“A public expression of love and devotion”
Guyton called the last case of the year unique.
KerrieAnn Keller, 20, of Fort Mill, sat alongside Laurie Hays and Jeffrey Hays, parents of Keller’s closest friend since college.
After nearly a decade of feeling like part of the Hays family, they wanted to make it official. They came to court to seek adult adoption, making KerrieAnn legally their daughter.
Laurie, Jeffrey and KerrieAnn had made the decision together after KerrieAnn left the house.
Laurie said she understood KerrieAnn’s struggles. Laurie said she could do for KerrieAnn what Laurie wished someone would do for her, give her a loving family.
“I was wondering what this was for,” Laurie said, “But it had a purpose.”
Adoptions are special, Guyton said.
“There is someone who says it in court. You know, I want you to be my child. I chose you, ”said the judge.
The Hays family had come to court to choose KerrieAnn. Three of their four children were seated behind them. Laurie said they wanted to choose KerriAnn as their sister.
“She was our daughter – although not by name, certainly by her feelings,” Laurie said.
“Do you understand that an adult adoption is in some ways a symbolic gesture that you do to KerrieAnn and that she does to you?” Do you understand that this is a public expression of your love and dedication for her, and she for you? Guyton asked.
“Yeah, I do,” Laurie said.
“They took care of me while no one took care of me,” said Keller, who had asked to keep her last name.
Guyton granted the third and final adoption of the day.
“She will be treated like one of your biological children,” he told the family.
At the end of the hearing, Guyton left his bench.
Behind him, KerrieAnn Keller hugged the couple. Tears flowed. They were hers now, and she was theirs.
Once an adoption is recognized by law, Guyton said, no one can take it away.
This story was originally published December 30, 2020 10:08 am.