Wilco judge recalls stories of adoption cases she presided over
“You see this footprint? This was a case where a child got adopted and the whole church came out, about 60 people,” Judge Betsy Lambeth says, pointing to a tiny pink footprint surrounded by signatures in blue. “The courtroom was filled with people, and afterward, we had people down the hall and wrapped around the corner waiting to come in here and sign this wall.”
The pink footprint is one of many painted feet and hand prints on Judge Lambeth’s office wall. Accompanying each print are signatures and quotes such as “This was the best day of my life.” After every adoption case Judge Lambeth presides over, she asks the new parents, adoptee, and family and friends in attendance to make their mark on the wall in a small room in her office. After four years with the 425th District Court, she has filled her office wall and continued the tradition on a canvas frame in the hall outside her office.
Every print represents a story of struggle, redemption, and hope for “families made in the heart,” as a sign in her office describes adoptive families.
“Family Law Chose Me”
Judge Lambeth graduated from Texas Tech University School of Law in 1985 and worked first for private law firms in business litigation and banking. She ran her own practice from 1997 until she was elected to judgeship in 2012. In her own practice, she started in business litigation but began to attract family cases. “Even though [family cases] were more emotionally difficult, I realized that I was really good at helping people when they were in a lousy place in life,” Judge Lambeth says. “[In these cases] you need somebody that can listen, and be empathetic, and I felt that I could be compassionate. So, family law kind of picked me.”
Judge Lambeth began to handle more family-focused cases, including adoption and Child Protective Services (CPS) cases. The cases shaped her philosophy of family law and helped her to recognize intricacies on both sides of cases involving children. “Love comes in all shapes and forms. It’s not cookie cutter,” she says. “Many of the birth parents actually love their children; there are just other issues that come up, and they can’t take care of them.”
In one such case, Judge Lambeth represented a severely drug-addicted mom with three kids. The woman was sentenced to two years of jail time, so CPS had to decide whether to terminate her parental rights. She was sitting with Judge Lambeth, then an attorney in her early thirties, in the jury room, talking about the uphill battle she’d face after her release. “Finding a job and a place to live as a convicted felon, while keeping herself clean, would be difficult enough. But doing that with three other mouths to feed would be almost insurmountable,” Judge Lambeth says. The woman decided that the most loving thing she could do was to terminate her parental rights, even though her children might never know how much she loved them. “We were both bawling, and I was hugging her,” Judge Lambeth, who had two young children of her own at home at the time, recalls. “It was heart-wrenching. For her, that was the best gift she could give her kids.”
Judge Lambeth worked several adoption cases during that time as well. When representing children, she looks for stability—of jobs, homes, and community—and unconditional love in adoptive families. She also looks for relatives to take the children. “Experience has shown us that the most successful adoption is family, especially with older kids,” she says.
After 27 years as an attorney, Judge Lambeth ran for 425th District Court in Williamson County in 2012. The court handled only family cases at the time, and Judge Lambeth felt suited for the job.
Williamson County Judge
With her election, Judge Lambeth became Williamson County’s first female judge. She presides over all family cases, including divorce, child relinquishing, and custody—but the adoptions are her favorite. Marlys Tidrick, Judge Lambeth’s court administrator, schedules adoption cases to allow Judge Lambeth and her team to spend time with the families. The attorneys ask questions of the adopting parents and the children, and stories begin to unfold. As family members testify, there usually isn’t a dry eye in the room. Judge Lambeth then asks the adoptee and any new siblings to come and knock the gavel—sealing the legality of their family—and they take pictures at the bench together. Marlys and Deputy J. C. Weaver, Judge Lambeth’s bailiff, then escort the family into the judge’s office for a celebration. The children get a stuffed animal or toy before court reporter Lynette Thorpe helps them paint their hands to put their mark on the wall of paint-printed stories.
Judge Lambeth and her team remember most of the dozens of stories represented by the prints and can retell each adoptee’s journey to finding a family. From 40-year-olds who were adopted by close friends to be a part of the family will, to an older brother adopting a younger brother to protect him from an uncaring stepmother, the stories are all poignant and hope-filled.
“Unfortunately, much of our time is spent dealing with the negative aspects of family law. I love when we get to create loving families!” Judge Lambeth says with a smile.
Every adoption is special in Judge Lambeth’s court. However, National Adoption Day on November 19th is especially exciting. Nearly 400 cities throughout the country participate in this special event, which builds national awareness of the many thousands of children in foster care who seek loving adoptive families.
From around August through November, many attorneys ask their clients to wait to finalize adoptions until National Adoption Day, when judges in counties around the nation preside over many cases simultaneously. In Wilco, balloons fill the courtroom, while clowns and free food await families outside. “We really celebrate these kids and make it a big party,” Judge Lambeth says.
On this day, as with every adoption, Judge Lambeth encourages families—from children to grandparents—to slow down and recall the journey that brought each person to this point. “I feel like my job is to get people who are here for the celebration to just stop, and make a memory, and create joy,” she says. “To let their bodies and brains catch up to where they are physically in the courtroom, take a deep breath, and really relish the moment.”
After the hard work that goes into adoption and the difficult roads some children have walked, they deserve a minute of joy. “They’re thanking us profusely, but we say, ‘No, thank you for letting us be a part of something neat!’” Judge Lambeth says.
To learn more about National Adoption Day, visit www.nationaladoptionday.org.