MOUNT HOLLY - Seventeen new families were officially created Friday during Burlington County's celebration of National Adoption Day.
But some of the parents who had their adoptions finalized during the event at the county courthouse said they have felt like families for a lot longer.
"I look at it like he was ours from the first day we had him. He completes our family," said Steve Morocco of Burlington Township, who adopted son Matthew, 4, with wife, Donna.
Big sister Morgan, 11, said she was happy that Matthew would now be part of the family forever.
The Burlington County courts hosted a luncheon for the 17 families in conjunction with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Burlington County, and the Burlington County Surrogate's Office.
"You are doing the kindest thing a human being can do. You are extending your hand to a child and creating a family," Superior Court Judge John L. Call Jr. told the families, their friends and other supporters.
National Adoption Day is celebrated nationwide every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. It is intended to raise awareness about finding homes for thousands of foster children waiting for permanent homes and to highlight the joys of adoption.
Call, Assignment Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder and Superior Court Judge Susan L. Claypoole, who presides over children-in-court cases in the county, finalized the adoptions Friday.
Bookbinder said the event draws attention to the need for adoption. About 400 county children are currently in foster care after being removed from their homes as a result of abuse and neglect. While not all are free for adoption, many children need permanent homes, officials said.
The Moroccos said they recognized the need to get involved with foster care and adoption through their work. Steve Morocco works for the state's Juvenile Justice Commission and his wife is a teacher.
After trying for a second child for several years, they chose to become foster-adoptive parents.
"We decided that there were kids in the system that needed help," Donna Morocco said. "I would say to parents who were thinking of foreign adoption to just look right in your own backyard. There are kids right here who have a bigger need."
And while it can be a difficult and lengthy process, parents Friday said it was well worth it, noting positive changes and growth in their children. Matthew first came to the Moroccos in June 2008.
Vickie and David Smallwood of Medford adopted little Jayden on Friday.
The 2-year-old came to live with the couple as a foster child when he was just 6 weeks old and his case has wound through the system since then.
"The judges were talking about how we should be applauded, but honestly this is the best gift ever," Vickie Smallwood said.
The Smallwoods were relieved to have the adoption finalized, but said they had a wonderful experience with DYFS and the support offered to them through the process.
For Marilyn and Joseph Marrera of Pemberton Township, Friday was a long time coming. They adopted 4 1/2-year-old granddaughter Aniyah, whom they have had custody of for almost her whole life.
"I'm overwhelmed and elated. It's a blessing from God," Marilyn Marrera said. She said she wasn't sure if Aniyah knew why she was at the courthouse.
"She knows she's going to be with us, but I'm not sure she understands all the rest," she said. "But she knows she is loved."
All the families encouraged others to consider being foster or adoptive parents.
"We all have a lot to give as far as love, guidance and support, but the kids teach us so much more about how to love," Marilyn Marrera said. "We have learned a lot."
Contact: dcamilli@phillyBurbs.com or 609-267-7586