The judge struggled to hold back tears as a new family filled six chairs Monday in Johnson County District Court.
“I order this packed courtroom to give the Watsons a standing ovation,” said Judge Kathleen L. Sloan.
The standing-room-only gathering of relatives, friends and classmates of the Watson youngsters — two sisters, two brothers — erupted in applause. Emma, the one in braided pigtails, couldn’t stop grinning while whispering in her father’s ear.
It was on a Wednesday in August 2015 that Phyllis and Eric Watson of Gardner received their licenses to become foster parents with the potential to adopt. The next day, the adoption agency called with their first case: four siblings seeking a home where they could stay together.
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“We were thinking one foster child at a time. Maybe two? We weren’t thinking four at once,” said Eric Watson.
That Saturday the couple decided: bring ’em on.
Two and half years later, the family made the adoptions official in what Sloan called “the best hearing that any judge gets to have in the United States.”
Alisia, 17; Bradley, 16; Cody, 15 and Emma, 11, became Watsons — color-coordinated in their khaki skirts and slacks.
They brought to the judge thank-you cards and flowers.
The boys sat beside Phyllis Watson as she answered a simple “yes” to an adoption lawyer’s questions in court.
Do feel you’ve developed a mother-child relationship? Have you the financial capacity to provide a proper home?
“Do you understand there are no give-backs here?” the lawyer asked with a smile.
Yes. Yes. Yes.
“It’s rare to see kids in the system, especially teens, find this perfect of an ending,” said case worker Kiersten Stolxenberg of the adoption agency KVC Kansas.
Eric and Phyllis Watson, of Gardner, built a larger house to hold everybody. They bought a bigger car, a Honda Pilot, for trips to Culver’s Restaurant — where they all ate on their first day together.
When the childless couple chose to accept the siblings, Phyllis Watson said, “we were a little shocked, afraid, I don’t know what to say. Scared?”
The children came from an Overland Park home where the marriage failed early and substance abuse and neglect followed. Biological grandmother Susan Bustamente said they always were well behaved, with credit going to big sister Alisia.
“She’s been a mother to those kids since she was three years old,’” said Grandma Sue, who mentored them in recent years and sat by the family at the court ceremony.
“They’ve had a hard life but they’re strong,” she added.
Eric Watson is youth director of Faith Baptist Church in Olathe, where his children also attend school. His wife works at an optical lab.
“I really believe, honestly, that God’s hand has been all through this process,” he said.
It wasn’t a breeze, as tears flowed when the children recalled their past experiences. But had the Watsons not taken them in, the children likely would have been split into separate foster homes, officials said.
Alisia would have aged out of the system and may have been left on her own as early as this summer, when she turns 18.
Now she has quite different plans: College. Someday marriage. Perhaps boys and girls of her own.
“Yeah,” she said Monday. “I can definitely imagine my dad walking with me down the aisle.”