And before 9 p.m., a little boy arrived. He had a brown paper bag with a set of clothes that no longer fit him, and a toy racecar that was broken. He wasn’t crying, and he didn’t seem scared. He had a big smile on his face, and he gave them both hugs.
“This happy little toddler arrived on our doorstep and just took over the place,” Lustig said.
“From that day he became part of our family,” Carter said.
On Saturday, they made it official. Joshua Duenas Lustig, now 8 years old, was one of 45 children adopted at a ceremony co-hosted by the D.C. Superior Court and the city’s Child and Family Services Agency, an annual event to celebrate the families and encourage others to consider helping.
Of the nearly 800 children in foster care in the city, child-welfare officials are seeking permanent adoptive homes for 60. “Call 202-671-LOVE if you’re interested,” officials kept saying to the hundreds of people who packed the courthouse for D.C. Adoption Day.
Officials had transformed the drab brick-and-stone atrium of the courthouse — which has been a place of exhausting or stressful meetings for some of the children — into a celebratory place. Judges sat under a garland of fat red, orange and blue balloons while girls in long white dresses danced.
Kristina Fleming, a young woman who aged out of the foster-care system in April, stepped to the microphone, hesitating. “I’m a little nervous,” she said. A pause. Then she began to sing, softly, Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” and her voice swelled as she went on, lifting her arms as it filled the huge space. A father swayed along, cradling a toddler; a mother by the wall spun her daughter, the little girl’s party dress twirling.
There were lots of flouncy dresses, and tiny three-piece suits, and itty-bitty bow ties and shiny shoes. There were parents and relatives with dreadlocks, with turbans, with shaved heads, with neon-dyed hair, with close-cropped white curls, with receding hairlines, with bright scarves. One little boy had a heart shaved into his hair.
Children from 6 months to 20 years old were adopted Saturday, walking or carried to the podium with parents and social workers and lawyers. There were huge family groups for some children. “Taraji!” a man yelled from an upper balcony, as the 2-year-old came to the podium, and dozens around him cheered.
Some children pulled the foam off the microphone. Some clung to their parents. Some patted the courthouse dog, Pepper, a black lab resting near the podium. Two little boys sang snippets of “Old Town Road.” A 14-year-old girl said, “I feel good about my family,” pressing her fingers into her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks.
There were a lot of tears, and a lot of smiles, and a lot of long, tight hugs.
Brandon, a 1-year-old, played with his mother’s braids and worked a pacifier. Dawn Mitchell began fostering when she was single; she grew up in a loving home and saw her grandmother, a teacher, make sure her students had the things they needed, whether a notebook or a sandwich. “I always felt — everyone needs somewhere safe to lay their head at night,” she said. When she got married, and the couple realized they wouldn’t be able to conceive, she suggested fostering from their home in Congress Heights.
They took in a 5-day-old baby, and adopted her in May 2018. A few months later, they got a call that the girl’s brother would need foster care as well. “Of course we jumped at the chance,” she said. They adopted him on Saturday, changing his name to Mitchell Thomas Washington (“He sounds like a law firm,” she joked).
Usually the children they take in leave, going back to parents or other places. “These get to call home ‘home,’ ” she said.
Lustig and Carter never imagined their first foster child would become a permanent part of their family. Carter had to learn how to change diapers. Lustig, who was 49 at the time, almost immediately developed severe back pain from scooping a little boy up off the floor and carrying him around their 16th Street Heights home. Now they have stronger backs and more patience and joy in their lives.
One of the first places they went with Joshua was an orchard. “I wouldn’t have imagined enjoying apple-picking in my 40s,” Carter said. But Joshua ran around, elated, hanging on branches, putting the basket over his head like a hat, eating all the apples.
“Wow,” Carter thought. “This is my family.”
Joshua has a warmth and an innate ability to connect with people, Lustig said — much more naturally than he does. Joshua immediately bonded with their black lab, Tex, and every night he’d make sure Daddy, Papa, and Tex were accounted for before falling asleep. He made new friends every time he went to the park. He quickly became close with the children in their extended family, swimming and having water-balloon fights.
All along, they were expecting him to be reunited with his mother, whose hospitalization after traumatic experiences had triggered the foster placement.
And on a Friday in February, nearly two years after he had come to their home, they took him to preschool in the morning, knowing that his mother would come take him home and that she might want nothing to do with them after that. “It was awful,” Lustig said; he was crying at his office at Georgetown all day. “I was a mess.”
But they quickly developed the relationship they had been hoping for, as “sort of doting uncles who would be there in his life,” while he was back with his mom.
They saw him every weekend. They helped her get him enrolled in a bilingual school. Because she was concerned about her safety, she asked them to create some kind of legal document that would allow them to make decisions about Joshua. And about a year and a half after Joshua had come to live with her again, she asked them to take care of him while she went home to Central America to care for a sick relative.
That was three and a half years ago, and she never returned. She has had an extraordinarily difficult life, Lustig said, and he is certain of her love for her son. They can never replace “Mommy” in his heart, Lustig said, and Joshua has needed lots of support, but they are his parents now.
“He taught us to be open to new things and new people,” Lustig said, and that “we are all connected on some level by not just our experiences and the celebrations of our life. We all experience loss. The important thing is, take that experience of loss and think about what you can cultivate from that that is positive.
“Life comes at you. You have to accept it and embrace it.”