BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Leah Paskalides was fairly new as an adoption caseworker for the Safe Children Coalition when she met Monyay – the 19-year-old woman she now calls daughter.
“When I started in adoptions in 2015, she was one of my first cases and at first she did not like me,” Leah said, shortly after the roughly six-minute April 27 adoption hearing, held via Zoom with 12th Judicial Circuit Judge Teresa Dees presiding, in which Monyay Faith Randall officially became Monyay Faith Paskalides.
The ceremony, which made national television news, was a mixture of giggles and laughter – including when Monyay spelled out her new last name – as well as hugs and tears.
Twelfth Judicial Circuit Judge Teresa Dees granted Leah Paskalides adoption of her daughter Monyay Faith Paskalides on April 27, in a Zoom adoption hearing that took roughly six minutes.
Tears of joy, as Monyay had what she called closure.
“To me, this is something I always wanted, I wanted closure,” Monyay said. “When I was in foster care, I regretted not being adopted.
“Now, here’s my chance, I didn’t want to miss out this time,” she added. “Like I tell most kids in care: Don’t give up hope – I did spend six years in care, it’s never too late, I’m grown but I’m still being adopted.”
ENTERING FOSTER CARE AT AGE 11
Monyay was born and raised in Manatee County. Both her birth parents are still alive. Her father lives in New York. Her birth mother, Rhonda Randall, still lives in Manatee County, but they aren’t really in each other’s lives.
Monyay was being raised by a great-aunt prior to entering foster care at 11, as a sixth-grader.
“I was a little bit too much for her to handle,” she recalled. “For me, I did normal kid things. For her, it was a little too much to handle.”
Monyay, who lived in two group homes, bonded well with her first caseworker, went on to become more focused in school and eventually graduated from Southeast High School a year early.
But things didn’t start out that smoothly. When she came under Leah’s care, at 11, the focus shifted to finding her adoptive parents.
Fearful of moving away from Manatee County and her four younger brothers – all of whom live with their fathers – Monyay wasn’t wild about the idea of being adopted nor, in truth, wild about Leah.
“She made my life definitely tough when I was her adoption worker,” Leah said. “I was like, ‘I need you to work with me, honey, you need to be open.’
“I promised her I would find her an adopted family,” she added. “I just didn’t know I would be it.”
Leah served as Monyay’s adoption caseworker from 2015 until 2017 and her mentor after that.
The two became close. Both are homebodies at heart, both are pranksters. By the time she was 16, Monyay was already calling Leah “mom.”
Monyay said once she realized she had to deal with Leah – who herself was barely 26 when they met – she started to warm up.
“Once I actually let my guard down and took the time out to get to know her, I was more open to her being in my life,” she added.
Adopting Monyay herself wasn’t foremost in Leah’s mind; finding her a new family was.
But as for so many other teens in the foster care system, age was not on Monyay’s side.
Almost one-fifth of the youths in out-of-home care in the foster care system are age 13 to 17, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families’ most recent numbers.
In the 12th Judicial Circuit, that means 202 of the 1,066 children in the system. Those figures do not include youths like Monyay, who have aged out of the system but still need help getting established in life.
According to national data more than 20,000 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 “age out” of foster care every year.
“I was very protective of her, since day one,” Leah said. “And when she let her guard down and she let me in, I was like ‘Oh my God, I really love this kid.’
“It broke my heart that people look at her picture and would be scared away that she’s a teenager,” she added. “Whereas if they got to know her, she’s amazing.”
In addition to graduating early, Monyay was heavily involved in Florida Youth Shine, a youth-led advocacy group for foster youth, and was named an Outstanding Youth Advocate in 2017 by Florida’s Children First.
Leah said it’s important for prospective parents to look past the age on the birth certificate and give teens a chance.
“I mentor three other teens and they have never missed a Mother’s Day to say ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ calling me on my birthday,” she added. “They need that support; they want that attention and they deserve it.”
Monyay added, “We just went through some unfortunate events in life that led us to being in foster care, which we couldn’t prevent.
“If you want to adopt, take a teen if you can,” Monyay said. “Don’t look past us teens, we really do get left out a lot.”
A QUESTION AT CHRISTMASTIME
Leah, now 32, could not adopt her former mentee until she aged out of the system. Prior to that, it was a conflict of interest.
After graduation Monyay started to work at a day care. She wants to return to school to get a degree in early childhood education and one day open up a group home for other young people like her.
Monyay and Leah would touch base about three times a week.
“It’s more interesting now,” Leah said. “She has started mentoring two kids that I mentor – she comes with me.
“So, we spend time there but some days she’ll be like, ’Hey do you want to go shopping, or dinner, FaceTime?”
At first, Monyay lived with her best friend in Manatee County and moved with her to Fort Myers, where they lived for about six months.
Monyay was sitting at home in Fort Myers around Christmastime, when she received a text from Leah asking if she wanted to be adopted.
Leah had been watching a documentary in which a person had been adopted as an adult and that got her thinking about adopting Monyay.
“I just wanted her to know, ‘You are wanted, you’re loved you have a support system,’” Leah said.
“It’s important to me that she knew that she was wanted by somebody that loved her,” she later added. “I can say that as many times as I want but actions speak louder than words.”
Monyay said she initially thought Leah – the notorious prankster – was joking.
“When she did bring it up in December, I didn’t think she was for real, I thought she was pranking me,” Monyay said. “Then she came back with some paperwork and I was like, ’Oh you were for real.”
Monyay, who had been calling Leah “mom” and asking if she could just adopt her since age 16, thought about it more. The more she thought, the more it made sense.
“I aged out of care and the crazy thing – she never, never left my side,” Monyay said. “I aged out of care, I moved out of the city, she still stayed there no matter what.”
Monyay, who moved back to Palmetto the week before the adoption, spent the night before the hearing at Leah’s house, ate pizza and played with Leah’s two French bulldogs, Chunk and Chewey.
“She’s very allergic to them,” Leah said. “Last night was a little rough for her.”
Monyay added, “Even though they make me sick and are very clingy, I love them to death.”
Monyay’s four little brothers are equally fond of Leah.
“My brothers love her, they love her,” Monyay said.
They arrived at the coalition office in Palma Sola Square on April 27, wearing matching black outfits, black open-toed shoes and identical nail polish.
After warm-up interviews with local media, the two sat huddled together in front of a big screen TV that served as the Zoom screen, where other participants included the judge, their adoption attorney Linda Griffin, Monyay’s aunt in Atlanta and her future adoptive grandparents, Alinie and John Paskalides, in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Yearning for a change of pace, Monyay is thinking about moving near that aunt and her family in Atlanta.
Still, Monyay doesn’t plan on losing touch with her mom, Leah.
“She’ll be making a lot of trips to Georgia,“ Monyay said.
Monyay Faith Paskalides, right, reacts after her adoption by Leah Paskalides becomes official.
One last closure
Remember, when Monyay first met Leah, she wasn’t interested in being adopted.
That changed by the time Monyay was a senior in high school.
“I basically did everything myself, my senior pictures and everything,” she recalled. “I remember being there and a girl walked in with her parents and their friends.
“I started crying in the dressing room because I was like, ’I have no parents, I’m really about to do this but there’s nobody here helping me get dressed, there’s nobody here fixing my hair for me, there’s none of that,” Monyay continued.
A woman there helped Monyay that day, but it still stung.
She confessed that hurt to a state senator, while on a trip to Tallahassee with Florida Youth Shine, when one of the topics they addressed was adoption for teenagers.
Monyay doesn’t recall the senator’s name but she wants to find him.
“I need to go through my photos and find him,” Monyay said. “I want to let him know that I got adopted.”