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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Mckenzie Shepherd beams Thursday during the adoption proceedings in Provo.

PROVO — Five days before Christmas, 9-year-old Mckenzie went into the courtroom a Jensen and came out a Shepherd.

Her proof? A signed legal decree and a glittering gold necklace that says "Daddy's Little Girl."

"Mckenzie," 4th District Judge Lynn Davis asked, "do you love your daddy?"

"Yes," the shy blond girl said, smiling over at Jared Shepherd, her mom's husband, who had just legally adopted her.

"And does your daddy love you?" Davis asked again. "Does he play with you?"

"Yes," she said, and proceeded to tell the judge that they play soccer together in the back yard.

That sounded good to Davis, who signed the adoption decree, a page and a half of jargon that legally joins Mckenzie to her new father.

"By virtue of this, Mckenzie will take the name of Shepherd," Davis said. "And you can enjoy that relationship, daughter to father and father to daughter."

Thursday's adoption was one of the thousands Davis has performed in his 21 years on the bench in 4th District Court — and one of the last before Christmas.

This year in 4th District Court there have been 359 adoptions, said court executive Paul Vance.

Each adoption is different, Davis said, and a bright spot after his daily criminal proceedings.

"Yesterday we had probably about 70 felony cases, mostly disintegrated matters within the community," Davis told the gathered family members. "It's nice to be involved with something positive and nurturing."

Mckenzie's mom, Debbie Shepherd, said she and her husband have been working toward this day for years.

She and Jared began dating when Mckenzie was 4 months old. They married in 2002, so Jared Shepherd is really the only father she has known, Debbie Shepherd said.

"Her biological father has never really been in the picture," she said. He received notice about Thursday's adoption but never replied or showed up, so his parental rights have been terminated, Davis ruled.

Those rights and responsibilities are now Jared's, who accepts them wholeheartedly. "Do you understand the mental, financial and emotional (responsibility)?" Davis asked the adopting father.

"Yes," he said.

"Do you recognize that she will be a teenage girl some day?" Davis asked again, to which the family laughed, and Jared Shepherd nodded.

But even without the legal conclusion, Mckenzie has always been a part of the family, said grandma Arlean Shepherd.

"We've always been grandma and grandpa," Arlean Shepherd said. "Always and forever."

Both sets of grandparents, a great-grandma, Mckenzie's little brother, 3-year-old Ryan, and an aunt and uncle came to the adoption as both supporters and photographers of the special day.

They took pictures of Mckenzie shaking Davis' hand, as well as Davis helping Mckenzie put on his judge's robe and hold his gavel.

"You could hammer that down and say, 'Dad, take me to McDonald's,"' Davis said.

Davis also handed Mckenzie several of his judge's cards.

"If any of your friends ask where you've been," he said, "tell them you've been to 4th District Court, advising the judiciary about complex legal issues."

She smiled shyly, handing the cards to her mom.

Davis shared some thoughts about adoption, then provided a copy of his comments to the Shepherds.

"The adoption process, because the consequences are so far-reaching, requires tremendous inspiration and courageous faith. The human spirit is divinely resilient, and (developing a relationship of) abiding love offers limitless security," Davis read, mingling his thoughts with those from "The Soul of Adoption," by Catherine E. Poelman.

"Happy holidays to you," he told the family as they filed out of the courtroom. "How can it not be with this?"

Outside the courtroom, Mckenzie said she wouldn't have trouble spelling her new last name in school. She's been practicing for a while.

"This makes a better holiday," Jared Shepherd said. "(Now) and for the rest of my life."

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