EDINBURG, Texas (AP) -- Anthony Gonzalez Harris had spent a decade in state foster care following the death of his mother, and as his 18th birthday drew near, he lost hope he'd ever be adopted.
But there he was Wednesday, surrounded by a mix of some of life's golden moments in the 93rd state District Court with Judge Rudy Delgado. With beaming parents Polly and Alex Harris by their new son's side, Delgado officially granted the adoption on the same date the judge himself was born 60 years ago.
The formation of the new family also happened to be the 17-year-old Mission youth's most sincere birthday wish. It came true about two weeks early, allowing the teen to avoid the challenge of aging out of foster care upon turning 18. With a broad smile, he acknowledged his senior graduation and prom are on the horizon, too.
The road to Wednesday's court hearing has been "unbelievable," he said, following the struggle that affected his schooling as he tried to cope with his mother's death in 2002.
"I look at myself 10 years ago and I look at myself now and I'm like, 'Who is this? Who was this Anthony?"' Gonzalez Harris told The Monitor. "If my mom would have to pick anybody to take care of me, it would be them."
When asked in court if he wanted to be adopted, the teen earnestly responded:
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
- View slideshow of Anthony Gonzalez Harris and his new family here
There are dismal truths about children who, like Gonzalez Harris, must wait to find their "forever families."
Adoption proves more elusive for children who come from large sibling groups, who have a disability, or who are older. Gonzalez Harris was 7 when he entered foster care and was the middle child in a group of eight.
Seven Hidalgo County foster care children were adopted last fiscal year, according to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. That amounts to less than 1 percent of the 963 children from here under such care.
Youths who age out of foster care are without a close support system and may face homelessness; among them, many lack a high school diploma and just a small number go on to earn college degrees, according to advocacy groups.
However, the state does offer post-foster care help. So-called emancipated youths are not charged tuition at public colleges and they are given limited transitional living and aftercare allowances.
In some cases, youths may sign an agreement to remain in foster care until age 22. The state also requires all youths on the verge of aging out to go through its Preparation for Adult Living program.
In court Wednesday, a birthday banner hung from Judge Delgado's dais and Polly Harris led a rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" as several DFPS caseworkers in attendance sang along.
Given his jurisdiction over criminal and family law, the judge said that it's often the darker side of life that is discussed in his court.
So, Wednesday was a breath of fresh air.
"Every once in a while I get to do something that brings joy to my heart," he said.
The hearing was "only a formality," though, he said, because it was obvious the three before him were already a family.
Polly and Alex Harris, a couple in their early 60s from Corpus Christi, thought rearing a child in their own home again was behind them. The couple has had an empty nest since 1999. Each of them has two adult children and they share three grandchildren.
For five years, Polly Harris, a retired educator and insurance business owner, worked to help coordinate informal picnics where foster children, including those finding it difficult to become adopted, could meet families already qualified to become parents. It was a picnic in November where the couple spotted their future son -- shyly standing alone, dressed in a suit.
"I never, ever, thought it would be me, really," she said of adopting. "To be honest, he got the best deal and so did we."
The family remembers the exact date she approached the teen to chat: Nov. 9. Drawn to the lonely looking boy, she said it was difficult that day to hear another family tell him they weren't interested in adopting an older child.
Less than a year later, as they sat on a court bench, a typical family scenario peppered with hugs and smiles played out in some good-natured teasing from Mom about a cute prom date.
"If there was one thing I was good at, it was being a mother," she said. "I thought why not give that to him?"
Alex Harris, who owns a title services company, recounted in court how the bond grew among the three as they took him to soccer practice and driver's education classes, while regularly talking on the phone and texting.
"Judge, he just touched our heart," Harris said.
Gonzalez Harris, who is a legal permanent resident, works as a lifeguard and will celebrate his birthday April 30. He plans to attend Del Mar College to study computer technology after high school.
His life today is a far cry from the time when his father's parental rights were terminated, eventually separating him from three of his brothers, who were adopted by a Houston family, and his three sisters, who stayed in the Rio Grande Valley.
"Every other word is 'Mom' and 'Dad,"' he said with a grin and a laugh. "I love them. What's the best way to show gratitude than to call them my own?"
The teen believes God brought the family together, adding that he feels blessed and hopes other foster children can find what he found.
"Them being there for me when I need them is just everything I've ever wanted," he said. "They have completely changed me."