Brittney’s victory offers hope to 1,500 other children, their advocates

The air in Family Court Judge Sandra Pomrenze’s courtroom Thursday morning buzzed with a ticklish anticipation. Children’s laughter mixed with casual adult conversation.

Brittney’s big day had finally arrived.

After a more than five-year fight, Brittney Bergeron’s agonizingly difficult adoption was signed and sealed at last. From Thursday forward, the 16-year-old would be known as Brittney Bergeron Himel.

Judge Pomrenze, whose courtroom is so often the scene of devastated families and broken lives, beamed with pride as she swiftly dispensed with the final formalities.

"Nothing beats this," Judge Pomrenze said. "Nothing beats getting Brittney where she wants to be.

"The child’s waited long enough."

Amen, your honor.

Adoptive parents Judy and Bill Himel would laugh about it later: Thursday’s hearing was one of the few times they could recall setting foot in a courtroom with such a lighthearted atmosphere. They had endured insults and invective and delay after delay on the long road to Thursday.

Court Appointed Special Advocate Kim Coates felt the same way. She said, "Whenever we go to court, it’s usually something negative. This was something wonderful. I thought, ‘Wow. I don’t know what to do with this feeling.’ "

That’s the challenge with the real world of family court, foster care and complex adoptions. Tragedy and heartache abound. Failure threatens at every turn. There are never enough happy endings to go around.

Wise beyond her years, Brittney would tell you she’s the lucky one.

That’s right, lucky. Despite being paralyzed as a 10-year-old in a knife attack that killed her 3-year-old sister, and despite being born into a trailer-court squalor riddled with hunger, drugs and neglect, Brittney knows she was lucky to find a real family.

Getting from that fifth-wheel in Mesquite to the loving arms of her brothers and sisters and mom and dad took a withering effort by a group of attorneys, social workers and professional juvenile advocates. They’re the people who are criticized whenever the flawed system fails a child.

There’s Steve Hiltz, directing attorney of the Children’s Advocacy Project at Clark County Legal Services.

Hiltz spoke with pride as he described how Brittney had matured in the past five years, but he also knew the case could have gone wrong in a dozen ways. It was complicated by the parental termination dispute with biological mother Tamara Schmidt, an abbreviated civil dispute involving the biological father, and appeals of decisions all the way to the state Supreme Court.

And there’s Chief Deputy District Attorney Brigid Duffy, whose office is jammed with abuse and neglect cases, including the latest headline-grabber involving Colleen and Stanley Rimer, who stand accused of murder in the death of their 4-year-old son, Jason. Their other children are in state custody.

Duffy received assistance from Deputy DA Ron Cordes. And child therapist Laurie Lytell stood by the girl on the arduous journey to adoption.

On Thursday in Family Court, there was hope for this cold, cruel world.

"I’ve had chills all day long thinking about this," Duffy said, smiling. "For one day my work isn’t in vain. I’m going to live with this as long as I can."

When Duffy first encountered Brittney, the girl was still recovering from her violent ordeal and was very quiet. The prosecutor visited the child at the Himel family home and gradually developed a trust. The relationship would be tested through a series of tumultuous court hearings and legal wrangling.

"We’re going to have this hour today," Duffy said. "Then we go back downstairs. There are 1,500 like her. But to have this end in this happy way is just always gratifying. Tomorrow it will be the Rimer kids, the next group."

The precious, fleeting delicacy of Thursday wasn’t lost on Coates, the court appointed advocate who has been with Brittney from the start.

"It made me realize how many kids are out there and how hard we work for one child," she said. "There’s hundreds more. There’s thousands more. Although I was happy and excited and felt relieved, I also felt like, wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do."

The work never ends because the human condition doesn’t change.

Brittney Bergeron Himel has found her way home, but locally there are 1,500 like her who dream of being part of a family at journey’s end.

The challenge is to not lose hope along the long, difficult road.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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