Joy filled the courtroom Friday as Keena Cowsert stood with her three new children before Judge Becky Titus, who finalized their adoptions, making them a family.
Each wore a red, battery-operated, beating-heart pin, gifts of adoption attorney Linda Griffin, to symbolize the tight bond that has developed between Cowsert and the teens. Until this past year, when Cowsert gave all three a home, the siblings lived apart for four years, shuffled from foster home to foster home within the childcare system.
On Friday, their dream to be together came true just before Valentine’s Day.
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“Do you understand that if the judge grants the adoption, these children will have all of the rights as children born to you and is that what you want?” Griffin asked Cowsert in front of the judge.
“Yes,” answered the single, 47-year-old college professor, who never planned on having a family.
“And do you intend to provide for them in every way in the future?” the lawyer added.
“Yes,” a smiling Cowsert promised.
Her new son, Nelson Robert Cowsert,16, stood tall and proud in his immaculate suit and tie.
Daughter Nadine Diane Cowsert, 17, broke into a big smile when she heard her new name, which now includes her birth mother’s middle name.
The youngest, Rebecca Lynn Kimberly Cowsert, 15, looked first at Cowsert and then at her birth father, who sat in the back of the courtroom to show his support. For all three teens, the proceedings were bittersweet, a new beginning but also a closure to the past.
Like her sister, Rebecca, who has a different birth mother, chose to add her middle name, Kimberly, to her own.
The name changes honoring their deceased mothers and the continuing relationship with their father provide the link through which the teens can begin to resolve the difficulties they experienced in the past, said Cowsert.
“It means a lot to them that their birth father be there,” said Cowsert. “He will always be their father, even though his parental rights have been terminated. He will always be part of their lives.“
Looking on were the other members of Cowsert’s family, including Jesse and Miriam, 15 and 16, two sisters who on Tuesday were able to leave the foster care system when Cowsert became their legal guardian. In time, Cowsert hopes to adopt the girls as well. Next to them were two more teenage girls still in foster care but residing in Cowsert’s Parrish home.
In time, they all hope to be one big, happy family.
“I never thought my life would turn out like this,” Cowsert said. “I never wanted to get married. I never thought I wanted children. I always saw myself driving a BMW convertible, not a mini-van,” she joked.
But then Cowsert’s life dramatically changed when she saw a photo of Nadine, Rebecca and Nelson in an article on the Heart Gallery of Sarasota Inc., a nonprofit organization of volunteer photographers who create a museum-quality traveling gallery of photographs of children who have proven almost impossible to place in adoptive homes.
She was so moved she decided to go through a foster parent training course with the Safe Children’s Coalition to try to determine if she had what it would take to adopt the trio. She soon had a house full of foster kids but it took nearly three years until the three siblings were united under Cowsert’s care.
Jeremiah Guccione, president of the Heart Gallery, hopes other families will follow Cowsert’s example. He knows from experience how difficult it can be for teens in the foster care system, who have no one. His family frequently took in foster children while he was growing up.
Guccione founded the Heart Gallery in 2005 after seeing a similar exhibit in Tampa.
“I couldn’t get those children’s pictures out of my mind,” Guccione said. “So I picked up the phone, called my attorney and asked how you start a nonprofit.”
Today the Heart Gallery has a volunteer staff of more than 60 photographers, adoption specialists and volunteers who shoot portraits and mount the exhibits of children available for adoption. Financed through donations and grants from private foundations, the Heart Gallery exhibits travel throughout Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. Nationwide, Heart Gallery projects have been established in more than 40 states.
After Friday’s proceedings, Guccione and photographer Peter Acker presented the Cowsert family with the framed photo of Nadine, Rebecca and Nelson. Acker was ready with his camera to document their smiles.
“I do this because it is a good cause,” said Acker. “I do it because this is good for the soul.”
“Our portraits and the stories that accompany them, show people that adoption is something most people can consider,” Guccione said. “They just need to step up.”
Cowsert found her life’s mission in that photo of Nadine, Rebecca and Nelson. She admits her busy life is balancing act. Cowsert currently teaches at Manatee Community College and Hillsborough Community College as well as conducting online courses for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. and the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition to her salaries, she also receives a room-and-board stipend from the state for the children who are in foster care, and an adoption allowance for the three siblings.
In time, she hopes to find a way to devote herself entirely to her growing family.
“It is my goal to get as many kids out of foster care as I can,” she said. “It’s not that it’s a bad system, it’s necessary but it should not be a system where you allow children to age out of foster care, to stay in until they are 18 and then be turned out on their own.”
On the eve of the adoption proceedings, Nelson and his sisters shared their feelings on becoming a permanent part of Cowsert’s family including her four poodles, Faith, Mercy, Glory and Grace.
As he talked about this new beginning in his life, Nelson cradled Faith, gently stroking her head as the poodle slept in his arms.
“Yeah, this feels like home,” said Nelson. “I was so excited this week, I could hardly sleep.”
Nadine watched her brother for a moment and said, “Everything is going to change, but everything will still be the same.”
Rebecca, like Nadine, was happy with the adoption but worried about being disloyal to her dad.
“It feels like I am stabbing him in the back,” Rebecca said. Then she, too, smiled. “But this does feel like home.”
“I understand their mixed feelings,” Cowsert said. “He is still their father. But it’s important for these kids to have a healthy life so they can move on, so they can forgive and I hope to give them the opportunities to do that.”
When asked how she manages as a new single mom, Cowsert answered, “It’s my faith in God and never forgetting this is all about them and not about me.”
Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7049.