Foster Care and Adoption: One Woman's Unique View of the System
By Pat Sullivan

Michelle Munari has been involved in foster care for nearly a decade. She has fostered 25 children altogether, adopted three, and worked as an Adoption Specialist and Foster Parent Trainer for KidsPeace for two years. She and her husband have one biological son who is 11 and very involved, organizing a walk every year to raise awareness of the need for foster and adoptive families. The family has also started a ministry at their church to promote foster care and adoption and collect and assemble "Bella's Backpacks," which are filled with personal items and age appropriate toys and activities and given to each child entering foster care through the KidsPeace Doylestown, PA, foster care office. Doylestown is located in Bucks County, where there are 450 children in foster care.

The dynamics that must exist between the husband and wife who foster or adopt are not definable, according to Michelle. "They have to be on the same page or it can tear the family apart," she said. "It is truly a journey, but, when it works, it is an experience that will bring couples closer together and become a path they walk together throughout their marriage."

Working in a Foster Care/Adoption Setting
In her job, Michelle, a former teacher, conducted home studies and child profiles for potential adoptive parents, "doing the prep work to enable a family to adopt a child," she said. "I could really relate to the fact that they wanted to build their families by fostering to adopt, and I would hold their hands if they needed it." Foster parents have the first opportunity to adopt the child in their home if parental rights are terminated. She also conducted foster family recruiting, helped families through the approval process and provided many of the mandatory training hours each family must have. In addition, she started a KidsPeace Foster Care Support Group for the families served by the Doylestown office.

She was passionate about making the whole process easier for the foster/adoptive parents. "It is hard to move kids, and it sometimes takes a few tries to find the home that meets the child's needs, but the child deserves it," according to Michelle. Often, children need emergency placement, which does not give the placement agency the opportunity to match families and children as closely as they would like, but at least the children are in safe settings. She stressed that case workers do not hold it against foster families who give notice that a child is not working out in their homes. "Kids are challenging, and there needs to be a connection with the foster family for the placement to work," she explained. She also feels that families who take in teenagers "are saints" because it is often harder to develop connections with
older kids.

Taking Children into Your Home
Michelle began foster parenting because she and her husband wanted to adopt siblings for their son. She has always taken children younger than her son because she believes it is important to keep the birth order and keep him in the role of "big brother" to all children who come into their home. She has primarily done regular rather than treatment foster care, although she did have one child who suffered from shaken baby syndrome. The Munaris took the child to several specialists and came to mentor the mother who had also been abused by the baby's father, having her spend weekends at their home as she learned how to parent him. Michelle considers this a real success story because the mother now has custody, and the child, despite some delays, is doing well.

Michelle is adamant about improving the image of foster parents. She wants the public to see them as average families living in average neighborhoods who are not expecting to make any money from fostering. They are not out to save the world but want to provide nurturing environments to babies and children who have no place to go. The Munaris won an award from Pennsylvania's Statewide Adoption Network this year as a "Permanency Family of the Year." Michelle said it was a great experience to have her entire family on the stage and to receive recognition for what they
love doing.

Adopting
Michelle's daughter came to her home after being abandoned at birth. Later, her birth parents wanted her back, but, after seeing the loving home she was in, they voluntarily terminated their rights so the Munaris could adopt her. Her two adopted sons are biological siblings whom she adopted directly through Catholic Charities.

Michelle said that the first thing adopted children want to know about is other siblings, more so than about their birth parents. Michelle also mentioned that adopting children of different races raises questions by the children about their color, but there are support groups for racially mixed families that help answer questions and assist with
adjustment.

When asked what it takes to be a foster or adoptive parent, Michelle said, "You have to have a heart, and you have to want to help children." She went on to explain that flexibility is very important because a home full of children can be chaotic at times, but not knowing what will happen tomorrow makes life interesting. She also stressed the need for a support system of family members, friends, church groups and other foster families who can drop off a meal, for instance, when there is no time to cook because a new child is arriving in an hour. She emphasized that no one expects super parents; just open hearts and welcoming homes.

The adoption process varies from state to state, but Michelle said that there are more than 3,000 children ready to be adopted in Pennsylvania and more than 120,000 nationwide according to adoptpakids.org and adoptuskids.org. Many of these children are over 10 years of age, are members of large sibling groups that do not want to be separated or have special needs. "The adoption process is not all rosy," Michelle said, "and can indeed be a roller coaster ride, but it is worth the journey. If you have an open heart and are committed to adopting, just keep moving forward and have faith that you will find a child who will enrich your life."

Michelle believes that the fostering and adoption experience has made her and her husband better people. They go to Mexico every summer to help out in an orphanage and are on a new life path that is very gratifying. In fact, Michelle and her husband believe that they are destined to adopt one more child to make their family complete. They will begin fostering again soon because Michelle is no longer working, so their new child may well be waiting for them right now.

 



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