“Angel of Adoption” Retires
His snowy beard, hearty frame and twinkling smile make King County Court Commissioner mEric Watness JD’77 look more than a little like Santa Claus. That’s why it’s so entertaining to mwatch him conclude an adoption in a grimy Seattle courtroom.
When the boy being adopted asks during a photo shoot if he can hold his fingers in bunny ears behind Watness’ head, Watness cheerfully obliges. After the hearing, he exclaims, “This is just awesome! It is totally the best part of the job. I can’t imagine anything more fun.”
Watness was a commissioner — otherwise known as a judge — for 16 years before retiring in June. He co-wrote an adoption practices and policy manual for King County and is a member of a statewide judges’ committee that advocates for all aspects of child welfare. Last year he received an “angel in adoption” award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. U.S. Representative Jay Inslee JD’76 nominated him.
This fall he’ll return to work as a part-time mediator. He also plans to spend more time with his grandkids and pursue his hobbies of tractor maintenance and repair, Norwegian Fjord horse cart and wagon driving and Western swing fiddling.
“Nobody was happy that Eric retired, and you can’t say that about everyone on the bench,” said Albert Lirhus, an adoption attorney who often appeared before Watness. “His personality, dedication and legal knowledge made him an excellent jurist.”
Watness has seen adoption from both sides of the aisle. Directly out of law school he worked as an assistant attorney general representing the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. He then opened his own practice representing private adoption agencies. Watness and his wife, Carolanne, even tried to adopt a child themselves years ago. That was during law school, when his wife’s job as a schoolteacher was their sole source of income. The agency turned them down. They later had two daughters and briefly became foster parents to a child with special needs who had come to Carolanne’s school in Burien, Wash.
Not every adoption goes smoothly. One story that still saddens Watness was the time a friend of his had been approved to adopt after the mother’s rights were terminated. The father later came forward to claim the child.
“The adoptive parents brought the baby to my office on a Saturday and went home crying,” Watness said. “To watch my friends in despair was horrendous.”
He’s presided over cases where adoptions didn’t work because the parents couldn’t handle emotionally disturbed kids and where a single woman, longing to be a foster parent, adopted a son even after he had been prosecuted for sexually abusing a youth in a group home. At the hearing, Watness told the youth that everyone has a right to a parent.
“She cried, he cried; it was the most unusual adoption I’ve ever done,” he said. “At least he’ll have a mom waiting for him when he gets out.”