Malinda Gatewood had waited to adopt a relative’s four young children for three years.

It finally became official at an emotional hearing at the Juvenile Justice Center in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday morning.

“They just needed someone to know that they loved and cared about them,” Gatewood, 46, said. “That’s all they needed.”

They were among several families whose adoptions were finalized on National Adoption Day, which raises awareness of the foster children in need of families across the country.

Judges signed the adoption orders of almost 40 children for more than 20 families at the Juvenile Justice Center. In Ramsey County, 22 children were expected to be adopted by another 15 families.

Hennepin County has held a National Adoption Day event for the last two decades. The adoption process, like Gatewood’s, can take years, so it’s important to celebrate the decisions of parents who choose to go through it, said Melissa Sherlock, the county’s program manager for adoption, foster licensing and kinship.

“We want to provide them a day that lets them know they’re special,” she said. “That hasn’t changed.”

It’s a heartwarming day for the county’s social workers, too, Sherlock said. “These are the days that make it all worthwhile,” she said.

Hennepin County expects to have more than 200 adoptions finalized this year. Still, the need is great: There are 820 children in Minnesota waiting to be adopted.

Gatewood first brought the children of her sister-in-law’s sister into her St. Paul home three years ago. She learned that they would be split up if they weren’t adopted.

“When I [saw] the love that they had for each other, I could not allow them to be separated,” she said. “That was my main goal: keeping them together.”

It wasn’t her first time going through the process. She adopted her now-grown daughter when she was 11.

The children — Natilia, 10; Andre, 8; Jameson, 6; and Tyrees, 4 — changed her life. Gatewood works at New Horizon Academy and is now studying to get her childhood education credential.

On Saturday, it was finally time for Gatewood and the children to meet with a judge on the third floor. The three boys wore white sweaters and sported fresh haircuts; Natilia had her hair in a high ponytail.

Colorful paintings hung on the walls of the courtroom. Gatewood sat in the center surrounded by the children and guardian ad litem Julie Doherty, who was assigned to the family.

In front of Judge James Moore, Doherty called the children her heroes and Gatewood a “force to be reckoned with.”

“Always, I have seen her with a twinkle in her eye and a smile that is so ready for these kids,” she said.

Moore stood up and congratulated the new family. The kids then grabbed some plush toys in the room — a puppy, a dinosaur and two Batman dolls — and took turns sitting on the judge’s chair.

Gatewood stopped by the first floor to pick up their birth certificates. Her mom, Carrie Gatewood, waited nearby with the kids.

“She always wanted kids,” she said. “Well now she’s got four.”

New families mingled on the second floor. Some children drew while others had their faces painted with tiger stripes or butterfly wings. Courtrooms were turned into makeshift studios where families could have their portraits taken.

As the children played, Gatewood said she planned to take them to Golden Corral and later to the Mall of America.

“They’re ready to call me mom, I know that much,” she said, laughing.