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Local Foster Children Find Their Forever Homes In Time To Trick-Or-Treat

Pet therapist Susan Smalling (left), Mandy Rhoden (center) and Rosie Rhoden (right) play with Molly Mae, a therapy dog.
Brendan Rivers
Pet therapist Susan Smalling (left), Mandy Rhoden (center) and Rosie Rhoden (right) play with Molly Mae, a therapy dog.

Several local foster children found their forever homes during a special Halloween event at the Duval County Courthouse Wednesday, just in time to go trick-or-treating with their new adoptive families.

“Do you know what’s happening today?” Mandy Rhoden asked her niece, Rosie, who’s dressed up as Wonder Woman. “Are you being adopted?”

“Being adopted…” the 3-year-old said, shyly.

“What does that mean?” Mandy asked. “Does that mean… you get to, what?”

“Stay with you!” Rosie yelled with a toothy grin.

“That’s right,” replied Mandy. “That’s right.”

The Honorable David Gooding and Family Support Services (FFS) hosted this special Halloween adoption event at the Duval County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, packing family courtroom 204 with dozens of soon-to-be parents, who eagerly waited to make their family status official so they could take their costumed children trick-or-treating for the first time.

FFS is the lead foster care, adoption and family preservation agency in Duval and Nassau counties.

“It is great fun to have a courtroom full of kids in costumes having fun as our kick off for National Adoption Month in November to set the tone,” said Judge Gooding.

Judge Gooding says the adoption process is very different when you go through the foster care system, as opposed to private adoptions.

Those who adopt through the foster care system pay no legal fees, they don’t have to pay to file the suit with the clerk’s office and they don’t have to pay for the attorney. That’s all provided.

Additionally, children adopted through the foster care system get a monthly subsidy until they turn 18 and their college tuition will be waived at any Florida college, junior college or technical school. “That’s a lot of money,” Judge Gooding said.

Those children even get medicaid up until their 23rd birthday.

And if issues arise after the adoption is completed, there are other agencies, like the Children’s Home Society, that are ready to step in and lend a hand.

Despite all those perks, Judge Gooding says there’s a serious need for foster families in Jacksonville.

“Good things about all the adoptions we do is that children find forever homes,” he said. “One of the bad things about it is that we lose some of our foster families because they max out the space in their house. They get as many kids as they can handle. So we are always in a recruitment mode.”

“The therapeutic foster homes, which is a higher level of training, there is a critical shortage,” Judge Gooding warned. “Sometimes our children from Jacksonville have to go stay out of county if that’s the level of care they require, because we don’t have enough here in town.”

Judge Gooding urges anyone who’s interested in or considering foster care or adoption to call Family Support Services at 904-421-5800.

But Judge Gooding said this event was about success stories, like Mandy and Rosie’s.

“She came to me in April and the last six months have been great for us,” Mandy said. “We’ve had some trying times, but she’s going to complete our family. So this is exactly what we needed.”

Mandy adopted her now 7-year-old niece six years ago. “She is the missing piece to our puzzle,” Mandy said of Rosie.

Mandy, a single parent, said the adoption process was pretty simple for her. But she acknowledged that’s not always the case.

“For us it was pretty simple, only because I was a relative caregiver,” she said. “She was given to me by the state and so the process moved along pretty quick.”

Mandy said Rosie’s been in her care since April because her biological parents can’t properly care for her. “They’re not in a place in their life where they’re able to give her what she needs and I am,” she said. “The state realized that so they let me have her.”

“The department rescues children from dangerous situations in their home. But it’s our adoptive parents who rescue children from the foster care system,” Judge Gooding said. “The best foster care system in the world is not as good as a permanent family. If you don’t have family, where do you go to celebrate Thanksgiving? To celebrate the holidays? To mourn deaths and to celebrate births? You’ve got to have family.”

And now Rosie, along with all these other young costumed Jacksonvillians, has one.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.

Special Projects Producer Brendan Rivers joined WJCT News in August of 2018 after several years as a reporter and then News Director at Southern Stone Communications, which owns and operates several radio stations in the Daytona Beach area.