Circuit Court Judge David Gooding will use any legal method at his disposal to pave the way for foster-care children to become part of a new family or reunited with their own. On March 16, amid the coronavirus pandemic and courthouse closures, he began holding Zoom hearings to finalize adoptions.
Neither Circuit Court Judge David Gooding or 9-year-old Taylor were entirely sure how this Zoom thing worked.
But on March 27, with courthouses shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gooding used the videoconferencing service to formalize Taylor’s long-awaited adoption into the Smith family.
They both love Zoom now.
"I did not know what Zoom was three months ago," said Gooding, who handles foster care, delinquents and adoption cases.
But any legal method he can use to help foster-care children become part of a new family or reunited with their own is worth pursuing, he said. Gooding began holding Zoom hearings for adoptions March 16 and has finalized 64 cases since then.
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"Time and again, I have seen children who have been traumatized find peace when they know they are part of a permanent family," he said. "There is something about receiving unconditional love that heals us all. During a pandemic, children need to find the peace a forever home affords all the more."
Taylor — now Taylor Smith — is thrilled with the outcome.
"It was kind of weird … And when it was done, I had a new name," she said. "I like my new name."
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Taylors’ new parents, Emily and Scott Smith of St. Johns County, had been discussing adopting a child for several years.
Scott Smith’s three children from a previous marriage — ages 21, 18 and 11 — "opened my eyes to the true meaning of unconditional love," Emily Smith said. "We were family."
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With the children’s support, their adoption journey began in January 2019.
"We found ourselves completely astonished by the number of children within the state of Florida that were searching for a forever family. It is heartbreaking to think of a child without a family and a place they can call home," Emily Smith said.
Within a few months, they were matched with Taylor through Jewish Family & Community Services, a Jacksonville nonprofit that provides foster care and adoption services, among other things. At a meeting with staff, they received information about Taylor’s history, saw her handwriting, drawings and school work.
"Elated doesn’t even begin to describe the excitement," Emily Smith said. "Taylor became alive to us from that meeting."
A week later, the Smiths were introduced to Taylor as her mentors. They had weekly visits then weekend outings as well, to the zoo, movies, the beach.
"We knew from the moment we met Taylor that we wanted to be her mom and dad. … Taylor began wrapping the strings of her heart around ours," Emily Smith said. "During one of our visits with her therapist, Taylor looked at us and said …’Will you adopt me?’ That was it.
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"She is our little light," she said.
Before the pandemic, the Smith’s adoption process was smooth, other than them wanting to speed up all the required procedures. They were awarded temporary custody in December 2019. Then the world began shutting down because of COVID-19.
"We didn’t want to panic Taylor," Smith said. "She would ask how many more days until I’m going to be adopted. We would simply say we’re just waiting on them to let us know. … In our mind we really didn’t know. Everything was so uncertain.
"We really just thought the adoption will just be on hold amid the chaos," she said.
But the courts were working on a solution. Chief Justice Charles T. Canady of the Florida Supreme Court and Chief Judge Mark Mahon of the Fourth Circuit Court entered administrative orders allowing courts to use videoconferencing technology. Gooding credited the Jacksonville court’s IT team, headed by Mike Smith, and Mahon for equipping the Duval court system. Also key was the Supreme Court’s "relaxation of rules regarding administration of oaths," Gooding said.
Gooding said he and area adoption service providers — Jewish Family & Community Services,, as well as Family Support Services of North Florida, Daniel and NYAP, or National Youth Advocate Program — "all share a sense of urgency. … Children grow up fast, so we adults need to move fast, too, for the sake of the child."
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Like Gooding, the Smiths were unfamiliar with Zoom. But when their attorney called about the videoconferencing hearing, they quickly educated themselves. March 27 would be the day that changed their lives.
"We were so happy that while everything around us was coming to complete halt, the lives and futures of these children were not," Emily Smith said. "I woke up looked at my husband and said, ’I’m going to be a mom today’ … While there were no bells and whistles within the courtroom, it wasn’t needed."
Among those celebrating the outcome was Rebecca Margulies, adoption program supervisor with Jewish Family & Community Services.
"Judge Gooding likes to say, ‘The entry door to the foster care system remains open, so we must ensure that the exit door stays open as well,’ " she said. "It is nice to know that there is a tangible way in which we can bring some positivity into the lives of our clients during this scary and uncertain time. … Help them to heal even amidst all the uncertainty."
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Before Taylor became a Smith, her life was lonely.
"I didn’t like it," she said. "I cried sometimes and I moved around a lot. But I don’t want to talk about that stuff now because it’s over."
After the Zoom hearing, the family had a special celebration dinner at home. Her father grilled steaks and her mother made pancakes in the shape of the letter "A".
"I have a family and two brothers and a sister and a bunch of cousins and grandmas and grandpas. We have dinner as a family every night," she said.
She has a mother who does her hair every day and tucks her into bed and reads her a book every night. She has a father who helps with her school work and taught her how to ride a bike.
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"I love my mom and dad," she said.
Gooding lives for such scenes.
"It has been the greatest privilege of my career to see the joy of our children and their families in the adoption hearings," he said. "I miss being with the children and families in person. I miss being able to shake their hands and enjoy their smiles. But what is important is getting these children home."