Lt. Brian Zach was working the night shift in March 2018 when he met the little girl who would one day be his daughter.
Zach, who works for the Kingman Police Department in Arizona, was the on-duty patrol sergeant when a call came through about Kaila, a 2-year-old with severe injuries that brought back memories of a 13-month-old homicide victim that had haunted him since 2011.
“I didn’t get to save that girl,” he tells PEOPLE. “Kaila was my second chance for that.”
Zach, 39, arrived on the scene to comfort the child — and now, two and a half years after that fateful first night spent coloring and watching Wreck-It Ralph, she’s part of the family, having officially been adopted by Zach and his wife Cierra in August.
“She was just the cutest little girl that immediately just tugged at my heart,” he recalls. “She would grab my hand and put it on her lap and she would hold my hand and kind of just pet my hand.”
Zach spent five hours that night with Kaila, who was removed from her home by child protective services because her injuries and bruises — the third instance in which her abuse had been reported — did not match the story her caretakers gave police.
She was transferred to a specialized hospital in Las Vegas to treat a skull fracture, brain bleed and dislocated elbow — and all the while, Zach was hatching up a plan to bring her home.
“I [came home and] told my wife about this adorable little girl that I met and I just wanted to bring her home,” he says with a laugh. “In the past 15 years, if my wife had a dollar for every time that I said that, we'd be pretty rich.”
This time however, things were different – and when officials told Zach they were having trouble finding a proper placement for Kaila, he was more than happy to help.
“When they remove [a child from a home], they want to place with family first,” he explains. “But if they can’t have family, they can go to a foster home. What they did in our case is they used our relationship from bonding that first night for what they call a fictive kinship.”
Fictive kinship is when children are placed with close family friends instead of family, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau.
After clearing some hurdles to ensure his taking in Kaila would not affect the criminal case being brought against her abusers, things moved quickly; they met on a Saturday, and by Wednesday night, she was home.
“As soon as I opened the car door, her face lit up,” he recalls. “She recognized me and she reached for me, and she made me hold her hand and walk her in the house.”
Though Kaila quickly fit right in with Zach, Cierra and their two children Raina, 19, and Trevin, 17, the family had to be cautious about their future plans, as Kaila's case was proceeding.
“We were obviously attached. It was going to devastate us if she went back,” he says. “We only bought a certain amount of clothes, and just kind of played each week as we could.”
Eventually, the state determined that Kaila should not be placed back in a home with her biological parents, clearing the way for Zach and his family to step in.
“When her family didn’t step up or pass the qualifications for them to be a placement for her, we knew that this girl, she needed love, she needed a family,” he says.
Kaila, who will celebrate her 5th birthday on New Years Day, was officially adopted on Aug. 18., a ceremony that brought with it a serious sense of relief.
“When the judge basically said ‘Congratulations,’ [I felt] this huge sigh of relief, knowing that I’ll never have that worry again about her,” Zach says. “She’ll always be with us, she’ll be loved, she’ll be cared for.”
Now, the family can’t imagine their lives with the spunky little girl who won their hearts.
“She is the wittiest, most full of character little girl you’ll ever meet,” says Zach. “She says the funniest, off-the-wall things. She’s definitely brightened up our world.”
If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to www.childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.
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