In a courtroom jammed full of families in their Sunday best, with the gentle high-pitched chatter of preschoolers serving as background music, Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney perched on his bench, smiled like a doting grandfather and posed a few all-important questions.
Little Zoe Knight, her preschool legs too short to curl over the edge of her chair, answered like a pro as Sweeney asked how old she was (a pause before she gingerly raised three fingers) and what she liked to do ("color").
One signature later and Sweeney was ready to pronounce Zoe a legal part of the Knight family.
"And we're very happy to have Zoe officially adopted," the judge beamed.
In less than 20 minutes Thursday, Sweeney put his mark on four adoptive families, signing the decrees that would move six foster children from the official care of Howard's social services department and into permanent homes.
It is a legal rite of passage he knows well. For more than four years, Sweeney, 57, has served as the county's unofficial foster adoptions judge, presiding over jovial hearings several times a year and adding a bit of consistency to the final step in the creation of a new family.
It was the persistent delays -- adoption petitions might sit for months waiting for an available judge -- that originally led local social services workers to Sweeney in 1998. Barbara Law, then an assistant director with Howard County social services, approached the judge for advice after learning he has two Korean-born adopted daughters.
The next thing she knew, Sweeney and his staff had become the central contact point for the agency. These days, hearings are set within a few weeks after adoptions workers call Sweeney's judicial assistant, Christine Rebbert. (Private adoptions in the county are not assigned solely to Sweeney.)
"He just seems to enjoy it so much and just makes it so special for families," said Law, who retired last year. "I love to see him with the kids."
Sweeney, whose daughters are in college, says the hearings have created some of his best moments in 12 years on the bench.
"Everyone loves [the hearings] because they're happy stories. We don't get many happy stories in court," he said. "The stories are usually the dark side of nature."
It's a sentiment that is echoed across the state.
While each jurisdiction handles the process differently -- some assign a particular judge to adoptions, others a specific day of the week -- judges say it's a duty they look forward to.
In Baltimore, Chief Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan has been presiding over public and private adoption hearings for more than a decade, at times signing 60 adoption decrees in a single day.
Kaplan, who has a 33-year-old adopted son, also assumed the role of adoptions judge to speed the process.
The city's administrative judge at the time of that action, he told social services workers that if they could get the paperwork to him promptly, he would do as many as he could, as quickly as he could.
"I sort of took the bull by the horns and said ... this is too important a subject matter to be delayed," said Kaplan, who has been on the city's Circuit Court bench for 26 years and signed off on more than 600 public adoptions last year.
Over the years, he said, he has made the every-other-Wednesday adoptions a celebration. "It allows me to survive all the sadness I see otherwise," he said.
In Baltimore County, adoptions are scheduled every Friday, and the Circuit Court judges rotate through the duty. In Carroll County, Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. is the designated adoptions judge. In Anne Arundel, adoptions are generally handled by the four Circuit Court family law judges.
"I really enjoy it, quite frankly," said Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Michael E. Loney, the family law managing judge. "We call it 'Happy Court.'"
In Howard County last year, 13 children left foster care and entered permanent families. Thursday's six -- among 126 foster children in the county's care -- were the first of this calendar year. By the time their cases reached Sweeney's desk, all the paperwork was in order -- home studies completed, biological parents' rights terminated.
The children were mostly young, ranging in age from almost 2 to 11 -- including two pairs of siblings. The new parents included married couples and single mothers.
Some waited slightly more than a year to get to this day, others much longer. But all were grateful to reach their final step in Howard County's ceremonial courtroom -- to end the uncertainty and to move on to a permanent family. Sweeney, decked out in his black judicial robe, turned the proceedings into a show, joking with the children and their families and asking for applause. Then he posed for photos with the children.
"Zoe, tell Judge Sweeney your dress is prettier than his," Judi Dickman, the adoptions social worker who handled her case, said as she snapped a picture.
Long wait over
Afterward, Zoe's mother, Barbara Knight, 55, said she had been waiting for what seemed like forever to add the little girl, who has been in her foster care since she was a month old, to her blended family.
Knight, a single mother and Owings Mills New Town resident, has three grown biological daughters and another adopted daughter -- 7-year-old Mia -- and is in the process of adopting a 5-year-old girl.
"There's a lot of, you know, tension and anxiety, waiting for that final moment," she said Thursday as she and her girls enjoyed cake and cookies in the courthouse jury assembly room. "It's long overdue."