On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Natale family of Rockaway Township filled their SUV with their brood of five and headed to a Cub Scout meeting at the local bowling alley. Joey, 14, and Nick, 12, were excited to meet up with friends. Kevin, 5, was playing with his plastic dinosaurs; Violet, 3, had her favorite doll in tow and mellow Nathan was taking it all in with innocent abandon from the confines of his car seat.
Earlier that morning, Wendy had been fixing bagels and cream cheese, preparing baby formula and corralling toys from around the house. Sounds like a typical day in the lives of a big family, right? But the Natales’ road to becoming a family of eight is anything but typical.
Five years ago, Wendy and Angelo Natale adopted three children—blood siblings—through the New Jersey foster care system. Through their love, commitment and devotion, they provided the children with a loving and stable forever home.
The Journey to Adoption
The consistent thread in this adoption story is the presence of their Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a community volunteer who’s trained to support children in foster care. A CASA speaks up and advocates in the Family Court system and provides consistency in the life of a foster child.
The Natale adoption journey began when Wendy and Angelo met in 2001. Wendy was a single mother of three young children; Angelo, also single, was immediately attracted to Wendy’s vibrancy and energy.
When Wendy and Angelo married a year later, they wanted more children but chose not have them biologically and decided adoption was the route they wanted to take. A friend suggested that they try a foreign agency, which resulted in the adoption of two boys, first Joey and then Nick.
After adopting the two boys, they felt their family was complete. But after some consideration, they heard about adopting children through New Jersey’s foster care system and decided to become certified, licensed resource (foster) parents. This gave them an opportunity to foster additional children and provide them with a temporary, loving home.
The Natale’s temporary status changed, however, when Wendy received a called on Thanksgiving Day from the New Jersey Division of Child Protection & Permanency (DCP&P) that there was an infant in the NICU born to a drug addicted mother who needed immediate placement. That’s when Kevin was introduced to the Natale family for foster care; and, as it happened, over time, the family became so attached to Kevin that they formally adopted him.
When the Natale’s received a call two years later that Kevin’s birth mother had given birth to another child, they again opened their home–this time to an infant girl named Violet. Wendy and Angelo decided that the brother and sister needed to remain together, and decided to adopt Violet as well.
What makes this story so incredible and inspiring is that two years after Violet came into the Natale family, Violet and Kevin’s birth mother gave birth to yet another child–a beautiful baby boy named Nathan.
This time, though, when the Natale’s received a call from DCP&P, they hesitated, at first, for obvious reasons—they already had five children to care for—but, then, in the interest again of keeping all of the siblings together, they opened their hearts and home to Nathan.
How a CASA Makes a Difference
As mentioned, the consistency in these placements and subsequent adoptions were the children’s Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs.
A CASA is someone who speaks up and advocates for a foster child, and provides consistency in the life of that child, helping to facilitate a strong foundation for the child’s growth and development.
Since 2000, CASA affiliates, part of a national network of non-profit programs, advocate for children in NJ removed from their families because of abuse or neglect. Their primary mission is to provide a voice for abused and neglected children. Working through community volunteers, these programs advocate on behalf of children in foster care and other out-of-home placements to ensure their well-being and ultimate placement in safe and nurturing, permanent homes.
Carolyn Gildersleeve was Kevin’s CASA and Helen Davis was Violet and Nathan’s CASA. Carolyn and Helen, in their role as CASA volunteers, visited the Natale family on a monthly basis, and supported them in securing resources and services such as therapeutic evaluations for each child and the family. They also worked to secure tutoring services, educational resources and medical services for the children. Their role also included providing a “voice for the child” in Family Court.
Today, Carolyn and Helen, in their respective roles, are still considered an integral part of the Natale family, even though their CASA cases are officially closed. They are now affectionately dubbed “aunties” by the Natale family. The Natale home is sometimes chaotic, always charming and never boring—and always filled with love.
When I asked Wendy if she and Angelo would have made the same decision to foster and adopt Kevin, Violet and Nathan if given the chance to do it all over again, she answered without pause, gazing around at the children lovingly. “Yes! I can’t imagine life without these children…They are a blessing! I feel like I’ve given birth to each of these children. There’s a natural connection between these siblings and we couldn’t bear to have them separated!”
Want to know more about how to become a CASA volunteer?
There are currently more than 7,000 children waiting to be assigned a CASA advocate in NJ.
If you’re interested in volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, like Helen and Carolyn, go to CASAforchildrenNJ.com and complete the online form. Someone from your local county CASA program will contact you with additional information. You can also contact Helen Davis at 973-975-8050 at CASA of New Jersey. Besides a background check, all that’s required to become a CASA volunteer is a willingness to commit the time necessary to make a lasting difference in the life of a child in foster care.