Retired Surrogate Court Judge Joseph Mattina oversaw about 10,000 adoptions in his decades on the bench.
He receives cards every Christmas from adoptive parents; and when he goes out in public, someone inevitably pulls up a child’s photo on their phones or from their wallets.
But a few weeks ago, he opened a four-page letter, written in cursive.
The letter was from Lynette Grandits, a single mother of two, both adopted from India. She wrote Mattina to thank him for saving the adoption of her second daughter, Rachel.
“I’ve been sick for two years,” said Mattina, who was also a Supreme Court justice. “This was the best dose of medicine I’ve gotten.”
Back in 1993, Catholic Charities, the organization overseeing the adoption, blindsided Grandits at the final proceeding when it told Mattina that the baby should go to a married couple because Grandits “could not provide a normal family situation,” recalled Grandits, an East Amherst resident.
Grandits remembers that day 23 years ago as her worst nightmare.
In an unprecedented move, Mattina removed Catholic Charities from the case and had Erie County take over. As Mattina put it that day, Grandits was already “a proven parent.”
Rachel has remained her daughter ever since.
More than 20 years later, the family’s been through its share of hardship. But it was Mattina’s intervention that allowed the family to exist.
“He could read me and I think he trusted me and gave me the opportunity,” Grandits said. “I don’t know how I would’ve handled it if someone would’ve taken my children.”
A pursuit of children
Being a single mom was not Grandits’ original plan. Back in the early ’70s, she was in a convent on the path to become a nun.
What prevented her from following through was her love for children.
“When I saw a woman with a child, my heart ached,” she said.
When it came time to take her vows, she decided she wanted children too much.
She began a new career as a nurse and then tried dating. After a few unsuccessful relationships with men, in 1982, she attended a single parents’ support group. Afterward, she decided that she was going to become a mother her own way.
Grandits began the process to adopt from India, one of the only countries that allowed single parents to adopt at the time. She filled out all the paperwork, sat through each homestudy, answered the social worker’s questions.
Ten months later, she got a phone call that said her baby was en route. Grandits called off work, and she and her mother boarded a plane to New York City, where they were greeted by a cart with 10 babies.
“There were nine sleeping, angelic-looking babies and there was one baby that was (screaming) “Waaaah!” Grandits said. “I instinctively knew at that moment when I picked up that baby, that was mine.”
That baby became her first daughter, Bethany.
Bethany, like many other babies adopted from India, experienced a number of health problems. She had Blackwater Fever, a severe type of malaria; salmonella; diarrhea; and seizures.
Grandits remembers sitting with her in the hospital 24/7. Grandits later found out that Bethany had been left in a dumpster when a missionary found her.
After about 18 months, the worst of Bethany’s health problems subsided, and Grandits’ desire for another child grew.
She began the second adoption process two years after she adopted Bethany. Rather than go through Evangelical Adoption and Family Services, Grandits chose Catholic Charities.
The process began similarly: paperwork, home studies, more questions. But after a while, the process turned to waiting. The waiting spanned almost 10 years.
“I would call and ask questions,” she said, only hearing that babies were placed first with people who didn’t have kids. “I lost hope this would ever happen.”
She gave away her baby clothes, crib and stroller. She went back to school to work on her degree.
Then, the phone rang.
They had a baby girl who was tiny – 1 pound, 4 ounces tiny. But the agency knew Grandits was a nurse and having a premature baby would not intimidate her.
“I just said, ‘Yes,’” Grandits said. “I’ll take her.”
Not long later, Grandits received a photograph of her baby. She was extremely small and had tape on her nose from where there had been feeding tubes.
“I fell in love with that picture.”
She got the real thing shortly after. Rachel, by this point, was 7 pounds.
On the day of her last court date, Grandits walked into the courthouse in a good mood.
“All I wanted was for the process to be over, the papers signed and sealed, so that this child would be mine forever,” she said. “I never thought there was going to be a problem – never in a million years.”
Then, a social worker whom Grandits had never before seen stood before the judge. “It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that a family consists of a father, a mother and a child,” Grandits recalls the social worker saying. “It is the recommendation of the Catholic Charities that this child be removed from the home of this woman.”
Grandits said hot tears began to pour down her face.
“I just held her and held her and thought, ‘No, you can’t take her,’” she said.
The judge sided with her, saying, “This is unprecedented, but I am going to ask that a new social worker and agency be assigned to continue this process.”
Essentially, he kicked Catholic Charities off the case.
The rest of the story wasn’t easy. The entire adoption process began anew with the Erie County Department of Social Services, but with more scrutiny because the adoption was flagged as a problem adoption.
She recalls one time when one social worker asked, “Do you entertain men in the presence of your children?”
Meanwhile, Rachel had her own bout of health problems: an MRI revealed she had holes in her brain, and a neurologist at Women’s and Children’s Hospital said “she may never walk, talk or even have a normal thought process.”
In the end, Rachel had weakness on the right side of her body, so she wore a brace. She attended grade school for children with special needs. She had hearing problems that warranted heating aids.
But, in May, Rachel graduated from SUNY Buffalo State College with honors and an internship at the University at Buffalo studying the effect of addictive substances. Her goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in psychology.
Now, Grandits does not blame the Catholic Church or even Catholic Services. It’s where they were at 20 years ago, she said, although she admits she was angry.
Catholic Charities no longer arranges international adoptions. It follows state regulations and places children in single-family homes, said Rose Caldwell, public relations director for Catholic Charities.
“Your marital status is not a factor in an adoption. It is not now and to our knowledge was not at the time in 1993. That said, we are not able to disclose whether that case is one of our adoption cases or not,” Caldwell said.
The idea of a family has evolved over the years, Grandits said.
“Even back then I thought, ‘Yes, a family with a father and a mother and children is the ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world,’” she said. “If we did there wouldn’t be adoption. Every child would be born into a family that welcomed the baby and wanted it and would care for it. We wouldn’t have a world where there’s poverty and the need to abandon or surrender children for adoption. In an ideal world every child would be wanted and cared for by their birth parents.”
“Single parenthood is possible,” she said. “You can love a child for two.”
Grandits and her two daughters don’t look alike except for their similar short height. But they’re a family unit. They took trips to Disney and fought like most families do.
Financially, single motherhood was extremely difficult, especially when insurance didn’t cover medical equipment.
So Grandits had to pay for Rachel’s leg braces out of pocket. And Grandits has had health problems of her own. She was diagnosed with lupus not long after Rachel’s adoption. In 2006, she was in a car accident that left her in severe pain. At that time, she lost her house.
Rachel understands all the opportunities she’s been given.
“It’s on my mind every single day,” she said. “I think about what it would be like to live in India and what it would be like to live on the streets.”
In her letter to the judge, Grandits wrote:
“I often wonder how empty my life would have been had Rachel been taken from me. Although I am single, I loved her enough for two and I worked doubly hard to help her achieve her goals.
“Thank you for allowing me to call her my own.”
For Mattina, Grandits’ thank you “lifted my spirit.”