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Celebrating 20 Years – An Adoption Story

Written by Legal Aid WV

08/01/2022

Serendipity brought Gabby together with Dona and Rick.

Gabby was born premature and spent the first 4 months of her life in the NICU. Her young mother struggled to take care of her for health and financial reasons. After a coincidental meeting, Dona and Rick ended up taking Gabby into their home just after her first birthday.

After Gabby became a member of their already busy household (Dona and Rick already had four sons, aged 15, 16, 19, and 20), Dona knew she had to take action. She and Rick filed for guardianship in 2005, and they quickly became family—like it had never been any other way.

“Gabby had health issues, but we never let her live a sick child’s life,” says Dona. “She even looks like Rick’s side of the family. People will say, ‘How are y’all related again?’ And I tell them we’re related by love. She has a papa and four brothers, so she’s spoiled.”

The only step they never took was officially adopting Gabby and getting her new birth certificate. In 2009, they got her name changed to include her birth name and their last name before she started school, but Dona and Rick never quite knew when it was the right time to start the adoption process. Gabby had lived with them her entire life, and it seemed things were safe as they were.

“Throughout the last 17 years, we’ve always wanted to adopt Gabby, but our arrangement was working,” say Dona. “We’d run into her parents every once in a while, and there was never a problem. I was terrified to stir the pot, but I did want it to be legal.”

When she was 14, one of Gabby’s friends who grew up with her grandmother went through a custody battle between her parents and grandmother. Her parents were granted custody, and a few years later, the story ended tragically when Gabby’s friend took her own life.

Dona watched her worst fears unfold in another family’s life, and that’s when she realized she needed to officially adopt Gabby one day. She reached out to local attorneys by phone, asking if any could help with her adoption. She got a similar response each time: we don’t have experience with a situation like this.

One night, she was talking it over with a friend and had a thought.

“My grandkids go to East Park Elementary School in Fairmont,” says Dona. “I remembered seeing a flyer in their backpacks about a lawyer who comes to the school and is available to answer questions. I decided to call the school and ask about it.”

East Park Elementary is a site for Legal Aid of WV’s Lawyer in the School program. When Dona reached out, the school gave her contact information for Lawyer in the School attorney Richard Morris.

“Richard was on board,” says Dona. They started the process of adoption, and Gabby was stunned to find out she was not already legally Dona and Rick’s daughter. “She was kind of mad of me when she found out.”

In 2022, after living with Dona and Rick for 17 years, Gabby was officially adopted into her family.

“Honestly, it’s not that much different,” says Gabby. “It was all just a legal change. I’ve been with them for 17 years; they’re my family either way.”

Richard, Gabby, and Dona on adoption day, smiling together at the courthouse.
Richard, Gabby, and Dona on adoption day

“One thing I would like to say is I have great respect for her parents for doing what they did,” says Dona. “I would never say a bad thing about them. They gave me the greatest gift a human being has ever given me.

“Gabby is one of the most incredible young ladies I’ve ever known; there’s so many things she could have used as crutches and excuses in life, but she chose to work harder to be who she is today. I know how blessed we are that we got to be a part of her journey and watch her incredible life unfold.

“The only thing missing was a single piece of paper that meant more to every member of this family than anyone could ever understand. We had a 17-year dream, and thanks to Richard Morris and Legal Aid of WV, our dream became a reality, so to me that is justice.”

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