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Ledyard couple adopts two daughters in special ceremony

Waterford — The pandemic has meant final adoption proceedings in Connecticut, usually done in a courtroom with an official public acknowledgment proclaimed by a judge that the foster children were now in a permanent home, have been replaced with a simple letter in the mail announcing the ruling.

One Ledyard couple thought that wasn't enough, and did something about it Friday. Friends and relatives of Thomas and Merry Cassabria gathered with state, local and school officials at the Waterford Country School to welcome Cassandra, 10, and Amber, 8, into their family. The girls received numerous gifts, including large stuffed teddy bears and flowers.

The two girls have been in the foster care of the Cassabrias since February 2018, after being in four different foster homes during the previous year. Merry Cassabria says she wanted to do something special for the occasion.

"It's a little disheartening, and a letdown when you just get adoption papers in the mail," she said. "I really wanted to do the ceremony."

The final declaration Friday that the two girls were officially adopted came from state Department of Children and Families Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes, who attended the ceremony.

"I now release you from the foster care system, and into the loving arms of the Cassabria family," she said.

Dorantes said 3,857 children in the state are in foster care and "it's my job to keep lowering that number. We do that when we have families like the Cassabrias that say yes, that say 'What can we do to help?' and are willing to take a chance."

The Cassabria family is an old pro when it comes to accepting foster children. They have taken in teenagers in the past. Cassandra and Amber's adoption marks the first time, though, they've accepted young children.

"At first, we weren't sure if we wanted to do the brush your teeth, or read a story at night routine," Merry said. But then they got a call from Lisa Duzy, director of community services at the Waterford Country School, asking if they could temporarily take in Cassandra and Amber. "Tom said 'Bring it on'," Merry said, "and the rest is history."

"We have a very busy house at all times," Tom said, "but it all works together." The Cassabrias have three grown children of their own, along with four dogs and two cats. "It's amazing that Merry and I have got all this, while we're both 61, with two more children in the house. Amber and Cassandra have really brightened the place. It's a real emotional high for all of us."

The girls have been welcomed warmly by their older brothers and sisters. Alayna Cassabria, 28, says it's been "awesome. The girls really look up to us." She admits, though, they're aware that they're role models for Cassandra and Amber. "We do have to tone down our language, and watch what we're doing. The girls are like little sponges. They observe us every day."

Ducey said she was disappointed that the girls wouldn't be able to go to their courtroom hearing, but the Friday ceremony was much more special. "I think in the future the school will celebrate every adoption like this," she said. "I've been doing this for 22 years. We don't get many days like this. We cherish them."

Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III praised the Cassabrias' efforts at being a foster family, and adopting Cassandra and Amber. He jokingly remembered an earlier time when he met the two girls with their new family at a fundraising desserts auction. "They outbid me on everything," he laughed. Allyn noted the Cassabria family is growing, and the "happiness that grows around them is evident."

The two new Cassabria family members are excited, too. "It feels pretty good. It's very cool to have another family now," Cassandra said.

Amber said she's also excited because she starts attending the Gallup Hill School in Ledyard on Monday. A recent family move prompted the switch from the Juliet Long School in Gales Ferry. "I'm looking forward to meeting new friends, and seeing my new teacher," the third grader said. Cassandra is a fourth-grade student at the Waterford Country School.

Editor's Note: This version corrects the identity of Lisa Duzy, director of community services for Waterford Country School.

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