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The pandemic nearly delayed a 7-year-old boy’s adoption, but D.C. court officials saved the celebration for him and his ‘forever mommy’

Erica Walker stands with her son, Dylan Walker, 7, on the day of the adoption ceremony as they pose for a portrait at Southwest Waterfront Park on April 7 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Erica Walker sat in front of the computer screen in a panic.

The 42-year-old mother had spent years looking forward to this moment — the ceremony finalizing her youngest child’s adoption. But now she was struggling with the audio and video as she tried to patch herself in with nearly 100 family and friends who had joined the online celebration. It was taking so long that Dylan, the first-grader who was the center of the ceremony, had to dash upstairs for a bathroom break.

“Come on Erica. Breathe Erica. It’s all right,” Walker said to herself as she leaned over a computer keyboard at her Southwest Washington home. “Oh, God. The judge is probably waiting for me.”

Walker didn’t realize the judge, as well as her guests, had already joined in and could see — and hear — her clearly.

The coronavirus has upended nearly every aspect of daily life and led to the postponement of special celebrations, including weddings, bar mitzvahs and birthdays.

Rites of passage and years of planning are among coronavirus victims

So when Walker saw on the D.C. Superior Court’s Facebook page last month that the court was shutting down most of its operations, she became fearful the adoption ceremony would also be delayed.

“I think my blood pressure shot up so high. We had been planning this for months,” she said. “Once the coronavirus hit and everything started shutting down, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?’ ”

She sent the court an email with photos of T-shirts she had made for the occasion, timed to coincide with Dylan’s 7th birthday. “He was so worth the wait,” read the shirts, which included his photo.

“Please, please ask the judge not to cancel the adoption ceremony,” Walker said she pleaded in the email. “I explained it was just too important.”

Several of the court’s judges and IT specialists came together to figure out how to make it happen. The court has used video and phone-in technology previously in proceedings in which defendants were incarcerated or a witness was unable testify in person. To limit in-person contact during the pandemic, the court is using the technology to allow defendants who are in the jail or the central cellblock to appear before a judge.

The adoption ceremony was the first time the court used the system to allow dozens of people to participate in a proceeding.

As the ceremony was set to begin Tuesday, Walker’s two older children, 23 and 16, were supposed to be helping her navigate the technology from the living room. But the two were running late, leaving Walker to figure it out on her own.

After about 10 minutes of fiddling, Walker was able to see everyone. Extended family, church friends and Dylan’s classmates had joined in. She yelled out to Dylan to join her in front of the computer.

Judge Andrea Hertzfeld, wearing a black blouse and gold necklace and smiling broadly, appeared from her home.

“Good morning everyone. I wanted to wear black so it would make it look like I’m a judge,” she said. “But I’m not allowed to go to my chambers to get my robe, as we are all respecting the stay-away order that is in place.”

“Happy Birthday,” the judge exclaimed. “So how does it feel to be seven? So far so good?”

Then Walker pulled Dylan closer to her. “Guess what? Today is our adoption day. Yayyyyy,” she yelled. The participants applauded and typed “Congratulations” and “We love you,” and the messages flashed on the screen.

Walker cried as the judge told her a birth certificate will be issued that lists Walker as Dylan’s mother.

“This is a pretty hard time for everyone with everyone stuck at home and can’t do much,” the judge said. “The court is excited and happy to do this.”

Leah Gurowitz, the court’s spokeswoman, said the Walker adoption was considered a special case because the proceeding was part of a surprise birthday gift for Dylan that his mother orchestrated months ago. Gurowitz said no further adoptions using the technology are planned. The court has temporarily ceased performing weddings as well.

Walker has taken care of Dylan since she brought him home from MedStar Georgetown University Hospital when he was just 2 days old. Walker remembers receiving a phone call around 5:30 that April morning seven years ago. Her longtime friend, whom she considers a sister, said she had just had a baby and asked Walker to come to the hospital. Her friend had kept the pregnancy a secret by wearing loose-fitting clothes.

When Walker arrived at the hospital, she noticed the baby was not in the room. Her friend also told Walker she had not given her son a name. Then, her friend said she wanted Walker to take the child and raise him as her own.

At the hospital, Walker wrote up a document that said she was going to care for the baby, which the boy’s birth mother signed. The two then got the letter notarized. Two days later, Walker brought the baby home. She named him Dylan Alexander.

At that time, Walker, a divorced mother of two daughters, had recently lost her job and was living with her children in a District shelter. She eventually found a new job and housing.

For years, Walker described Dylan as her nephew-son. Walker describes Dylan as an “old man.” Every morning when he wakes up, Walker said, Dylan gets a cup of hot chocolate, climbs back under the covers and watches TV news shows. He likes making cupcakes and waffles with his mother and wants to be a chef, or maybe a football player.

When Dylan was 3, Walker said she told him that she was not his birth mother.

“I told him what a family was and that family was not always biological,” she said. “I told him I was his momma, but that he did not come out of my tummy.”

Walker waited five years before beginning the adoption proceedings. She wanted to give Dylan’s birth mother time to thoroughly weigh her decision.

Then, in 2019, she and Dylan’s birth mother initiated the adoption process. Once the two signed off on the court paperwork, Walker attended hearings and submitted to numerous home visits by social workers. She said Dylan’s birth mother was among the guests who listened in on the adoption ceremony by phone.

Walker now works full time as a choir director at Christ United Methodist Church in Southwest Washington. She also works on communities and gentrification issues at Amidon-Bowen Elementary, where Dylan is in the first grade.

On Tuesday, the judge read various reports from the city’s child and family services, which visited Walker’s home and interviewed her family and neighbors. At one point, as Dylan’s wide eyes barely peeked above the bottom of the computer screen, Hertzfeld spoke directly to him about what a social worker found.

“The report didn’t just say Ms. Walker really loves you and can provide a stable and loving home for you. But it also said you had widespread support from family and friends in the community and a really good loving family situation.

“It’s really cool that you have all these people who love you and support you so much, and you can see that here today. We’re all dealing with this emergency covid[-19] situation, but it’s pretty cool we are all participating here,” Hertzfeld said.

When the threat of the virus passes, Walker wants to take Dylan to Disneyland, which he says is his dream.

As for Dylan, the ceremony meant one thing. Walker, he said, will now be “my forever mommy.”

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