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ADOPTION DAY FINALLY ARRIVES

There were times when Brittney Bergeron Himel thought the day would never come.

With a biological mother fighting for her custody and a Family Court judge pushing for family reunification, it seemed like her wish for adoption would remain out of reach.

"There was never a time we were going to stop fighting, but sure, it was discouraging for a long time," said Brittney’s lawyer, Steve Hiltz with the Children’s Attorney Project. "I kept reminding them that this is not over, not by a long shot."

Ultimately, a letter Brittney wrote to her incarcerated mother persuaded her to give up the fight in February, which paved the way for Thursday morning’s emotional adoption hearing, Hiltz said.

The hearing took five minutes to undo more than five years of frustration.

Outside Family Court, Brittney beamed.

"I feel like a Himel," the 16-year-old said.

She has a new name, new parents, and for the first time in a long time, she belonged to a family instead of the system.

Brittney landed in foster care soon after an attack in January 2003, which left her paralyzed and her 3-year-old sister dead.

While their mother and her boyfriend gambled, Brittney, then 10, and Kristyanna Cowan were attacked in their Mesquite mobile home by two teenage siblings from Utah who thought the boyfriend had sold them salt instead of methamphetamine.

Brittney’s spinal cord was severed in the stabbing.

Beau Maestas, 24, was sentenced to death, and his sister, 22-year-old Monique Maestas, was sentenced to life in prison.

Outside the court Thursday, Bill Himel recalled watching news of the horrific crime with his wife, Judy. Later, when he heard Brittney was headed for rehabilitation, Bill Himel told his wife they soon would be getting a call.

The Himels, longtime foster parents to children with special needs, got that call and welcomed Brittney into their home. In the Himels, Brittney found a loving family that could help her move beyond her past.

She wanted them to be mom and dad, but her biological mother, Tamara Schmidt, wouldn’t relinquish her parental rights. After years of back-and-forth court battles, Schmidt in February agreed to give up her fight and support adoption by the Himels.

Her decision came a month before the Nevada Supreme Court was to hear arguments in the appeal of Family Court Judge Gerald Hardcastle’s decision to uphold Schmidt’s rights and push for reunification between mother and daughter.

Schmidt is in prison after pleading guilty to felony child neglect related to the attack.

Brittney’s biological father did not fight termination of his parental rights, Hiltz said.

The night before Thursday’s hearing, Brittney hardly slept. She woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for her big day in court.

Surrounded by her family and the social workers, lawyers and others who battled on her behalf in the courtroom, Brittney did not hesitate to say yes when Family Court Judge Sandra Pomrenze asked whether she wanted to be adopted.

When Pomrenze made it official, the Himels embraced their new daughter as tears and applause filled the courtroom.

"This is her day. We’re just thankful it’s here," Judy Himel said.

When it seemed like the courts would never grant her wish, Brittney thought she would have to wait until her 18th birthday to join the Himel family, she said.

"It’s been a long time coming and well worth the wait," Bill Himel said. "We’ve loved her forever. It’s just a piece of paper."

But it’s more than a piece of paper to Brittney. It means sleeping over at a friend’s house without background checks and approval from Clark County Family Services. It means not having to get permission from social workers to travel the country to compete as a top-notch wheelchair athlete. It means putting one long, painful chapter of her life behind her.

"We waited 51/2 years sitting there waiting for someone to sign off on a piece of paper," she said. "It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. It opens the door to the rest of my life."

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

By BRIAN HAYNES

REVIEW-JOURNAL

There were times when Brittney Bergeron Himel thought the day would never come.

With a biological mother fighting for her custody and a Family Court judge pushing for family reunification, it seemed like her wish for adoption would remain out of reach.

"There was never a time we were going to stop fighting, but sure, it was discouraging for a long time," said Brittney’s lawyer, Steve Hiltz with the Children’s Attorney Project. "I kept reminding them that this is not over, not by a long shot."

Ultimately, a letter Brittney wrote to her incarcerated mother convinced her to give up the fight in February, which paved the way for Thursday morning’s emotional adoption hearing, Hiltz said.

The hearing took five minutes to undo more than five years of frustration.

Outside Family Court, Brittney beamed.

"I feel like a Himel," the 16-year-old said.

She has a new name, new parents, and for the first time in a long time she belonged to a family instead of the system.

Brittney landed in foster care soon after the January 2003 attack that left her paralyzed and her 3-year-old sister dead.

While their mother and her boyfriend gambled, Brittney, then 10, and Kristyanna Cowan were attacked in their Mesquite mobile home by two teenage siblings from Utah who believed the boyfriend had sold them salt instead of methamphetamine.

Brittney’s spinal cord was severed in the stabbing.

Beau Maestas, 24, was sentenced to death, and his sister, 22-year-old Monique Maestas, was sentenced to life in prison.

Outside the court Thursday, Bill Himel recalled watching news of the horrific crime with his wife, Judy. Later, when he heard Brittney was headed for rehabilitation, Bill Himel told his wife they would soon be getting a call.

The Himels, longtime foster parents to children with special needs, got that call and welcomed Brittney into their home. In the Himels, Brittney found a loving family that could help her move beyond her past.

She wanted them to be mom and dad, but her biological mother, Tamara Schmidt, wouldn’t relinquish her parental rights. After years of back-and-forth court battles, Schmidt in February agreed to give up her fight and support adoption by the Himels.

Her decision came a month before the Nevada Supreme Court was to hear arguments in the appeal of Family Court Judge Gerald Hardcastle’s decision to uphold Schmidt’s rights and push for reunification between mother and daughter.

Schmidt is in prison after pleading guilty to felony child neglect related to the attack.

Brittney’s biological father did not fight termination of his parental rights, Hiltz said.

The night before Thursday’s hearing, Brittney hardly slept. She woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for her big day in court.

Surrounded by her family and the social workers, lawyers and others who battled on her behalf in the courtroom, Brittney did not hesitate to say yes when Family Court Judge Sandra Pomrenze asked if she wanted to be adopted.

When Pomrenze made it official, the Himels embraced their new daughter as tears and applause filled the courtroom.

"This is her day. We’re just thankful it’s here," Judy Himel said.

When it seemed like the courts would never grant her wish, Brittney thought she would have to wait until her 18th birthday to join the Himel family, she said.

"It’s been a long time coming and well worth the wait," Bill Himel said. "We’ve loved her forever. It’s just a piece of paper."

But it’s more than a piece of paper to Brittney. It means sleeping over at a friend’s house without background checks and approval from Clark County Family Services. It means not having to get permission from social workers to travel the country to compete as a top-notch wheelchair athlete. It means putting one long, painful chapter of her life behind her.

"We waited five and a half years sitting there waiting for someone to sign off on a piece of paper," she said. "It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. It opens the door to the rest of my life."

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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