Kosciusko County Superior Court I Judge Karin McGrath (back row, left) poses with the second-grade class from Community Baptist Christian School after McGrath approved Summer (seventh from right) to be adopted by Kevin and Susan Smithberger (back row, right) Friday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Kosciusko County Superior Court I Judge Karin McGrath (back row, left) poses with the second-grade class from Community Baptist Christian School after McGrath approved Summer (seventh from right) to be adopted by Kevin and Susan Smithberger (back row, right) Friday. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.
Tears of joy were shed in Kosciusko County Superior Court I Judge Karin McGrath’s courtroom Friday.

There also were smiles and laughter and red balloons lined up along the jury box.

Eight-year-old Summer was adopted by Kevin and Susan Smithberger, of South Bend, on Friday with McGrath presiding. Not only was Summer’s six new brothers and sisters, in-laws, grandparents and other relatives present, but so were all her second-grade classmates from Community Baptist Christian School.

And Summer was beaming brighter than the sun outdoors with happiness before, during and after the court proceeding.

Before the adoption proceeding, Matt Tracy, school administrator with Community Baptist Christian School, South Bend, said, “One of the students in our second-grade class is getting officially adopted today so we’re here to celebrate with her and be a part of that event, so just cheer her on and congratulate her at the courtroom today.”

He said Summer has been at their school for 1-1/2 years and “we’ve been kind of with her through the process so we wanted to be here for her on her big day today.”

The idea for the students to be there came from Summer’s teacher, Lisa Mohnacky.

Susan said, “It’s a small Christian school. So the whole thing of God adopting us into His family, and they had that in a Bible lesson. That was like a week after we had our adoption date and the teacher - even earlier - said, ‘If Summer happens to get adopted before the end of the school year, let me know because I have an idea.’ The principal is also here and he has five siblings that are adopted, so it’s just important to that school to come around her. The advantage of a small school.”

Grant Kirsh, of Kirsh & Kirsh Law Firm, Indianapolis, attorney for the Smithbergers, said his law firm handles 700 adoptions a year.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had an entire class - I mean Zoom, I’ve had classrooms - an in-person entire classroom show up for an adoption hearing. It’s very special,” Kirsh said. He said he’s had adoptions with 50-60 people in attendance, with a lot of children, but Summer having her class there “is pretty cool.”

In explaining how Summer came to join the Smithberger family, Susan said, “Summer and I have a mutual friend. Cathy Parker was her life skills coach and had retired but stayed on with Summer’s team because she was the only person Summer had in her life that had been consistent for more than two years. And, we already had been licensed to foster. We’re approved to adopt.”

Kevin and Susan have six older children and are starting to have grandchildren. They tried for two years to get other kids to adopt, but they weren’t chosen, so they thought maybe God was calling them in a different direction.

Then Parker calls them and says, “Hey, I’ve got this little girl. She’s going to become legally free. Would you consider adopting her?”

The Smithbergers met Summer in October 2020 at a park with Parker. Summer was unaware that she was meeting her potential future parents.

“When Cathy came to us and said, ‘Would you consider her?,’ Kevin and I talked about it for a couple of weeks and we prayed about it. And when we said yes to taking her in the household, we said yes to adopting her. She was our child. You don’t go back on that,” Susan said.  

Summer is Kevin and Susan’s first adoption. Susan said they feel they didn’t get the other children to adopt because it was God’s call and Summer was supposed to be the one.

“She is super excited for today. Super excited. She is a cheerful, happy little girl, but especially excited today,” Susan said.

When Summer came into the Smithbergers’ home, they told her it was the last home she was going to be in.

“That meant a lot to her. And you can - especially as an 8-year-old - you can get that up here (in the head) but to get that down here (the heart), takes an awful, awful lot,” Susan said.

Prior to the Smithbergers, Summer had been in five different foster homes in about two years. She had been in the foster care system since 2018.

Explaining why the adoption was taken place in Warsaw instead of South Bend, Kirsh said, “So her case is out of Kosciusko County. In Indiana, you can file an adoption in the case in which the (Department of Child Services) case is out of, which is Kosciusko, or the county in which the petitioner resides, which would be St. Joe County, or the county in which the attorney is located, which is Hamilton. ... These judges see these cases through and there’s a lot of stuff that the judge has to go through to get to permanency for a child, and this is kind of the culmination of all of that. So for a judge to see all that through is very important.”

Kirsh was the person who supplied the helium-filled red balloons to adoption.

“I’m the only attorney in the state I think that has two professional-grade helium tanks,” he said, adding that he, his wife and two of his paralegals blew up about 30 balloons Friday morning. He joked he used the balloons as leverage to get the kids to behave.

So what kind of person does it take to be an adoptive parent?

“Anybody,” Kirsh said. “Especially when it comes to foster care. There is such a need in Indiana and all over the country for foster parents, and Susan will tell you it’s not an easy job. It’s not an easy job and, unfortunately, the system is somewhat broken and it makes it hard for foster parents to stay in it once they adopt. They kind of adopt and exit the foster care system because it’s such a difficult thing to do. But anybody can foster. Anybody can adopt and it can be a very rewarding experience.”

The court proceeding for McGrath to approve Smithbergers’ adoption of Summer took less than 13 minutes. The petition by the Smithbergers for adoption of Summer was filed Jan. 6.

As part of the procedure, McGrath told Kevin and Susan that each one of them was adopting Summer. Should something happen to one parent, the other parent was still responsible for the adopted child. Kevin and Susan accepted that responsibility without hesitation.

McGrath asked for someone to speak on behalf of Kevin and Susan and why they would be best suited to be Summer’s parents.

Grace Linhart, one of their daughters, said, crying, “All six of us, plus in-laws, know my parents to be the most responsible, loving and supportive people that we know and we love them all for it and know that Summer will be an amazing addition to this family.”

When McGrath asked Summer about Kevin and Susan, Summer said she loved them and, “I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life to be adopted. I went from home to home. I waited 559 days.”

She said they know her and they and all of her brothers and sisters know what’s best for her.

McGrath granted the adoption and said from henceforth Summer’s name will be Summer Ann Smithberger. The courtroom applauded and McGrath told Summer that Kevin and Susan were her parents for the rest of her life. McGrath stepped down from her bench and presented Summer with a Jockey Being Family backpack, which included a stuffed bear and blanket and adoption information for her parents.

After proceedings were over and a number of photos were taken with Summer, her family, the Department of Child Services and Summer’s classmates, McGrath said she’s handled about 10 adoptions in her first year on the bench. She said Friday’s case was the first time she’s ever seen anything like that ever, even before becoming a judge.

“It’s been a long road for Summer to get to this point ... so I think a lot of people, like the CASAs, DCS really wrapping around this child to get her to a point where she’s in this perfect place, position her in a forever home. It just took a while, so all these people invested in that process are now extremely excited to see it come to fruition. And I think her, as well, wanting her class to be here made it extra special,” McGrath said.

“This is the happiest thing we do in this room. There’s a lot of sadness, a lot of tragedy, a lot of really difficult things. These are the highlight hearings of what we do. Absolutely.”