Middletown — A love affair that began 2½ years ago when a social worker delivered two frightened sisters to a foster home in the Taftville section of Norwich culminated Friday, when Daisy Lopez officially adopted 10-year-old Francesca and 11-year-old Olivia.
It was National Adoption Day, and in Connecticut, the Department of Children and Families and Judicial Branch celebrated 44 adoptions throughout the state, including the permanent unification of Daisy "Mama" Lopez and her two new daughters.
Courtrooms that typically host contentious custody hearings and divorce proceedings were transformed for the day into places of unity and new beginnings. Even the judicial marshals tasked with maintaining order smiled from ear to ear.
"It's a happy day for all of us," said Bernadette Conway, the state's chief administrative judge for juvenile matters. "And I suspect there's been an uptick for those people who are in the business of selling balloons, teddy bears, and my personal favorite, cake."
The DCF took the opportunity to celebrate the success stories and highlight the need for more adoptive families to come forward, especially for teenage children in the agency's custody. The agency has 25 children ready for adoption now and hundreds of others who eventually may be eligible. Though the DCF's mission is to strengthen and reunite families whenever possible, sometimes it just doesn't work out.
Adoptions usually are private affairs, but the Lopez family welcomed the public to share in what the girls called their "Gotcha Day," a reference to the Disney series "Jessie," which features four adopted children. Daisy Lopez said she wants people to know there are children like Olivia and Frankie who need homes.
Born 11 months apart to the same mother and different fathers, the sisters had lived in a small town along the Connecticut River. The biological parents, for various reasons, could not provide what the girls needed and eventually agreed to terminate their parental rights.
"They said it was never a question of not loving them, but they had to do what was best for the girls," DCF social worker Jeannine B. Wiese said.
The girls lived in a foster home in Manchester before DCF support worker Madelyn Guzman placed them with Lopez, a 47-year-old single mother of a teenager and three adult children. Lopez tutors Norwich schoolchildren in English as a Second Language and serves as a Spanish translator for the schools. She said her entire life has been devoted to children and that she became a foster parent because she wanted to "make a difference."
Lopez said she fell in love with the girls right away, and when she learned seven months ago that they might be available for adoption, her heart immediately said, "Yes!"
She said that the girls have given as much as they have received. Olivia, a self-described "fashionista," and Frankie, a bubbly cheerleader, appreciate every little thing she does for them, she said, and have reminded the whole family to be grateful for all they have.
"It's not like I spend millions of dollars on them or I have a mansion or a 2013 car," Lopez said. "It's the little things in life, like eating dinner together or ironing their school uniforms."
During an interview at the family home on Thursday, Olivia said she used to worry that somebody would come and take her away from the home and the family that she has learned to love. Frankie was so unsettled by life that she said she didn't listen when somebody told her to do something and always tried to make Olivia mad or get her in trouble.
The girls prefer talking about their new family but provided hints of the insecurity they felt in their former life.
"Sometimes I never had a roof over my head," Olivia said. "I never had the right clothes, the right nutrition."
The girls remembered walking into the living room of Lopez's duplex apartment for the first time in June 2011 and meeting Lopez, who told them she was going grocery shopping and asked them what they liked to eat. For Olivia, it was tacos. Frankie said she wanted sweets.
At first, the girls shied away from the huge extended family and friends that were always around, but the foster family persisted in folding the girls into their lives. When Olivia, who had anger issues, would yell, Lopez said she would respond by lowering her own voice to a whisper.
"No matter what pain they've been through, all they need is love and consistency, and they will overcome anything," Lopez said.
Within weeks, Olivia and Frankie were calling Lopez "Mama" and felt as if they were part of the family.
"They care about us," said Olivia. "They love us. They give us everything that we could want."
Twenty-nine months later, the girls who walked into the home with slumped shoulders and somber faces have evolved into happy pre-teens, a transformation that amazes even Wiese, the experienced social worker on their case.
"Look at who they are and how they've overcome," Wiese said. "In all my years, this is one of the couple of cases that stands out."
These days, Lopez no longer needs to ask what belongs to whom when folding the girls' laundry, and Olivia and Frankie know what to expect when they wake up each day. The girls said Norwich is a "kid-friendly" place and they felt welcome in the school system, where they quickly made friends. Frankie is a fifth-grader at the Wequonnoc Elementary School. Olivia, a sixth-grader, attends Kelly Middle School.
Olivia is in the all-city chorus, and to demonstrate why she was selected, she belted out a spirited and nuanced version of "Happy Birthday" right there in the family living room. Frankie is a cheerleader for the Norwich Wildcats, and she stood up to show off some of the moves she has learned.
In preparation for Adoption Day, the girls made picture boards of all the "firsts" they have celebrated over the past two years, like trips to the beach and to Six Flags, school award ceremonies and holidays. When they finally sat before the judge Friday, in their new dresses and carefully combed hair, they read from prepared speeches conveying thanks to Lopez, their DCF workers and their new family.
"I looked into her eyes and I could tell she would love me forever," Olivia said of Lopez.
"When we looked face to face, I knew she was the person who would love me for the rest of my life," Frankie said.
"Well said," Judge Conway told them.
Conway said the girls would be receiving new birth certificates from the Department of Public Health listing Lopez as their mother. The judge said DCF would no longer be involved in their lives on a regular basis, but that the child welfare agency would be there if the family needs help.
After the ceremony, the newly minted family granted interviews to television reporters and stood behind the courtroom bench for photos with DCF Commissioner Joette Katz and Conway.
Eventually, they left the courthouse to get on with their new lives.