Monyay Paskalides, of Bradenton, Florida, spent most of her life in the foster care system, including all of her teenage years.
When Monyay aged out of the foster care system last year at age 18, she said she braced herself for spending the rest of her life on her own, without a mom or dad.
"It was really hard going from being in a group home with an adult to help you to immediately being by yourself without an adult to help," Monyay, now 19, told "Good Morning America." "It was lonely."
That all changed last week when Monyay was formally adopted by Leah Paskalides, a 32-year-old woman who got to know Monyay six years ago when she was assigned as her caseworker for the Safe Children Coalition, a local nonprofit organization that helps children in Florida's foster care system.
"I met her, and I saw a lot of myself in her," Paskalides said of her now-daughter. "Once she trusted me, we just clicked."
Paskalides worked as Monyay's case manager for around three years and then became her mentor, someone whom Monyay could turn to for advice and help.
Paskalides said she watched as Monyay got closer each birthday to the reality of aging out of the foster care system, which happens to children in the system who turn 18 without being adopted.
"Around their 17th birthday, our independent living team starts talking with [kids in the foster care system] about what their options are when they turn 18," Paskalides said. "I hated watching [Monyay] feel like she was neglected in the state’s eyes."
Paskalides was unable to adopt Monyay while she was still in the foster care system, because of the conflict of interest in her role as a caseworker.
Now the adoption assistant manager for Safe Children Coalition, Paskalides said she watched a documentary last year about a man who was adopted as an adult, an option Paskalides said she "had not even thought about" until then.
She quickly reached out to Monyay with the idea.
"I told her that I saw it and asked if it was something she would want, and she said yes," Paskalides recalled. "I wanted to make sure she knew that she had somebody who loved her and who would have done this years ago and still would as an adult."
Less than six months later, on April 27, Paskalides and Monyay sat side-by-side in an adoption hearing and heard a judge declare them officially mother and daughter.
"As soon as I put my hand on her shoulder, I lost it crying," Paskalides said of the moment.
"I still can’t really describe the way I felt in that moment. It was beyond words," Monyay said. "That’s the one thing I’ve wanted my entire life, to have a mom."
Monyay said she has called Paskalides "Mom" since the age of 16, but she has now also formally changed her last name. She will soon receive a new birth certificate, too.
"She now refers to her adoption day as her birthday, so she has two birthdays each year," Paskalides said. "We were always close, but now when she calls me, it means something even more to her. It’s legal, and that means the world to her, because for so long she didn’t really have a mom."
Paskalides added that Monyay has been welcomed with open arms into her family, and Monyay hopes to travel to New York to meet them in person soon.
"My 90-year-old grandmother called me and said she’s so happy to be a great-grandmother," Paskalides said. "She said she didn’t think she’d live to see the day."
Paskalides's adoption of Monyay is one that Brena Slater, the president and CEO of Safe Children Coalition, described as "very rare," both because of Paskalides' role as Monyay's former caseworker and because of Monyay's age.
Children in the foster care system who are below the age of 9 tend to be adopted more frequently, data shows. In 2018 alone, nearly 18,000 young people aged out of the U.S. foster care system, meaning they are on their own starting at age 18, according to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, a nonprofit organization.
"Unfortunately, a lot of teens turn 18 when they’re in high school, and a lot of kids who turn 18 aren’t ready to be on their own," Slater said. "We see the difference when we have a teenager and find a foster family who will take them in, so we really want people to know just how important it is to foster and to adopt teens."
"And we want teens to know that someone is always there, even if it’s not their biological parents," she said. "We want all teens to have that sense of security."
Paskalides and Monyay said they hope their story inspires other families to open their doors to teens in the foster care system.
"It’s not all about the younger kids in [foster] care, because us teenagers and older kids in care, we need love, too," Monyay said. "A lot of people have assumptions about us, but we’re not bad kids. We need love, too, just like the younger kids."
Monyay, who works at a daycare center while she studies for a degree in early childhood education, is now mentoring younger teens in the foster care system, just as Paskalides did for her. She said she reminds them that their current situation does not determine their future.
"I never expected to be adopted, and here I am," she said. "[Paskalides] never gave up on me."