The Journey Continues . . . Foster Care.
Bringing awareness this May 1st, 2014
for National Foster Care Awareness Month
By Jeanette Yoffe
It was a sunny August day in New York City when I was happily playing in a park sandbox. My birth mother, Celia, told a woman sitting nearby how ‘stressed out’ she was about being pregnant again, and caring for me at the same time was just “too much for her?”
The date was August 10th, 1972 and incredibly, my birth mother followed the strangers’ subsequent advice and I am assuming while still quite “stressed out”, brought me to Jewish Child Care in New York City. (I later learned she agreed to bring me to a Jewish agency because she thought Jews were nice people). This monumental event marked the next leg of my life’s journey at the tender and vulnerable age of 15 months – my placement into foster care.
After a period of time at Jewish Child Care, during which I am told my birth father would visit me ‘quite often’ and plans were being discussed to have me sent to an Aunt’s home in Argentina, I went to live with a foster family; a nice Jewish family in Seaford, Long Island. I had a foster mother, a foster father, and two pre-teen foster sisters (who were biological to my foster parents). Although at first glance, I looked like I could be related to them, I knew that I was ‘different’. I was suffering from a powerful sense of confusion and loss. My heart was sore, while my mind was still too young to grasp what was happening to me.
Apparently, I cried a lot. Thinking back it’s hard to imagine how I ever stopped. I was crying for my mommy and daddy to return. Crying because I felt incredibly detached, frighteningly alone in this world. The thoughts going through my developing mind were overwhelming. I remember tearfully asking the same questions over and over again, “Where did my mommy go? Where is my daddy? When are they coming for me?” and even more painful questions like, “What did I do wrong?” I felt responsible. Did I hurt them? Did I destroy them? The sense that it was my fault, that I had done something wrong was tremendously debilitating. And I would look up at my new family and wonder, “Who are these people? They don’t feel like me, they don’t smell like me… Do they love me?” And then that relentless voice again telling me, “I’m scared, I’m sad, I’m angry and I am all alone in this enormous world!”
As I grew older, living with my foster family in their upper-middle-class suburban home, my inner voice grew stronger. But I was afraid to speak freely. I didn’t question anything out of a sense that if I said or did anything ‘wrong’, everything could be taken away again. I would once again be out of control – totally dependent on strangers. I was just a kid and didn’t have anyone to model strength for me or help me process my thoughts and feelings so I just accepted my situation. I would tell myself, “It is what it is. I’m in a family, they care about me, I eat every day, I have hand-me-downs. I have a room. I have toys. I go to school and that’s that. I’m alive.” And in the 1970s, the foster care system did not provide individual counseling or family therapy services to help process and understand what was happening so I did what most kids in this situation do… I repressed everything. I took every painful, negative, angry feeling that was raging inside of me and crumpled them up like a giant piece of paper. Crushed and crumpled and threw them in the garbage like “trash” and thought I was done with it. These feelings would not control me.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult and in therapy that I realized I was walking around with this enormous “crumpled up ball” inside of me (I told my therapist “I felt like a piece of garbage”) and this part of me desperately needed my attention. I now realize I was lucky to have that epiphany, as some foster kids never do and they carry the pain inside their whole life. But I was a strong kid, who wanted nothing more than to be happy. So with all of my strength and all of my courage, I reached deep down and ripped out that ball of crumpled paper, smoothed it out in front of me, and wrote “I LOVE YOU” with my own hand. The trash was instantly turned to gold. This was the day I began to heal, to love myself, to care for the pain, and not discard it. I began to feel compassion for what I had been through and began to hear my voice more clearly. No one person could have done this for me, I had to do this myself, but looking back I now know that a good therapist could have helped me get there sooner, with more understanding and empathy. This support is exactly what I try to provide foster kids in my professional practice today.
* * *
Foster care was never explained to me. At least in a way, I could understand at the time. I didn’t know that foster care was a temporary home and not a permanent one. I didn’t know that the “big people” in my life, like my foster parents, social worker, the judge, and the attorneys, were constantly looking to “place” me and at one point where even making plans (yet again) for me to return to my biological family in Argentina. But more important than what I didn’t know was what they didn’t know – that in the 6 1/2 years I had been living with a foster family… They had become my family. Not foster, not temporary, but real. My family. What else was I to think? What else had I to compare this to except some ill-defined feelings of not belonging when I first arrived? After all, they raised me for 15 months and if it wasn’t true love that I felt, I had certainly grown to need them and respect them and they had grown to love me, very much, especially my foster father, who was already in his late 40’s when they took me in. He would often laugh and joke with me, and treat me like his own daughter. So at the age of 7 1/2 I didn’t know this “growing together”, this “family” would one day abruptly end and I would be leaving this family too without explanation, without discussion, without choice.
I wish I could tell you that my experience in foster care was all daisies and lollipops but I’d be lying if I did so. I am not one to sugarcoat my experiences, especially now as an adult. I have the words now and I have the strength to speak about my experience and I use those words and that strength to help kids who are in the shoes I wore get through their foster care and adoption experiences – and even more to understand what is happening to them and letting them know it is not their fault.
And I will tell you plainly that the day I was forced to leave my foster family was the second most devastating day of my young life. I have never really admitted it to anyone before, just how hurtful that day was. I kept that piece of paper balled up because of pride. But even now, thinking about how my foster sisters Amy and Nancy may read this, I don’t think they fully understand how difficult and life-changing leaving that house was for me. Because I had grown attached. I had grown to love my foster father. He became my father. They were my sisters. Or were they?
* * *
Backing up a bit, when I was 7 years old, about 6 months before I was adopted out of my foster family’s home, I remember a professional woman, Barbara Horowitz, coming to my foster home to talk with me. This meeting and subsequent timeline remain very fragmented in my mind as it was emotionally overwhelming, especially for a kid of that young age. However, I remember her coming over and being introduced as my ‘social worker’, and even though I wasn’t sure what that meant I quickly realized that this woman had the power to take me out of Faro’s home. How did I know that? Well, she sat me down on the couch and said something like, “Hi Jeanette. Next week, you and I are going to meet your “real” brother Patrick. He lives in the Bronx. And then you and Patrick are going to go on a long plane ride and move in with your real family in Argentina.”
Just like that. Brother? Real family? Argen-what-a? I remember looking at her sort of blankly, half not understanding, half not wanting to, and saying, “Um, OK. Can I go outside and play now?”
I remember her shaking her head. It was time to listen, not play. And ‘how did I feel about that?’ Hmmm. Here I am, seven years old, just a couple of weeks removed from my summer break and I’m suddenly being told I have a mother in Argentina and a brother in the Bronx? Up to this point, I didn’t know I had a brother or that my birth family was from Argentina. I was curious yet scared. I didn’t want to leave the Faro family because I thought they were my real family! I was utterly confused and conflicted. I didn’t know what to say.
The following week Mrs. Horowitz pulled up outside my foster family’s home, rang the bell, and said she had someone to introduce me to. I vividly remember standing at the top of the stairs looking down at the foyer and as they walked in I almost collapsed. Standing beside her was my biological brother Patrick. I had never seen anyone who really looked like me before. And yet he still felt so much like a stranger. It was a very odd sensation feeling so close and yet so distant from someone at the same time. I became very defensive and guarded. I was thinking, I don’t know this weird person that looks like me and you want me to get on a plane with him and go where?! He became a threat. I was scared by the whole situation. I looked around me and I wanted to scream but I couldn’t speak, I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move. I was paralyzed with fear of what was to come and had the dreadful sense that I could do nothing about it. My life was out of my control.
Somehow Mrs. Horowitz managed to get me in the car, probably with a great deal of coaxing from my foster mom, and took Patrick and me to Burger King for lunch. After a burger and fries, she took us to have passport pictures made in order to travel to Argentina. I remember very few specifics from this day, just a series of images. I cannot even recall having the passport photo taken, but I still have it so I know it happened. Here’s the proof.
When I look at this photo, I am beside myself. The look in my eyes; a child, confused and overwhelmed, not understanding what is happening and at the same time just doing what she’s told by the adults around her. It breaks my heart! But I also realize, the “big people” had a plan for me, which in hindsight is very positive. In my professional life, I am all for reunification when it is safe and the birth family or extended family are capable of providing a loving and nurturing home for their child. But boy, how different my life would have been had we actually gotten on that plane.
However, I did not get on that plane. Argentina would have to wait another 25 years. I am still trying to find out exactly why we didn’t go, but for the purposes of this blog suffice to say I went back to my foster family for what would turn out to be another 6 months. Of course, not going to Argentina was never actually explained to me. Nor would anyone tell me where my brother lived and why I couldn’t see him again. In fact, I don’t remember anyone explaining anything. I started to have those damn negative thoughts again like, “Had they seen my photo and decided they didn’t want me back?” “Did they die?” Talk about confusing! I am amazed I can write about this now and having a first grader of my own – I look at him and wonder aloud sometimes, ‘how did I ever cope with this rug being pulled out from under me AGAIN?’
* * *
In August of 1978, I was adopted by Ron and Diane Kopitowsky. They lived one town over from my foster family’s home in a much less ostentatious house, with lots of cats. I remember waking up sometimes in my ‘new’ bedroom with my ‘new’ family, getting out of bed, and losing all control of my body. I would literally fall to the ground, unable to stand and think, “Oh my god, I can’t walk anymore….” It was as if, looking back now, the rug was literally being pulled out from under me! Eventually, the feeling would come back to my legs and I would manage to get back up. After a few months, this stopped happening, perhaps because I started to feel more grounded in my new environment that for all of its flaws, was a loving home. And for that, I was very lucky.
* * *
I have always wondered, where my inner strength came from? My birth family? My foster family? Or just me? How did I manage to juggle all of this chaos and still manage to be a kid, to make it through adolescence and my teen years without terrible abuse self-inflicted, or otherwise? Yes, I was defiant, angry, and sad, however, I was also a child who “kept it inside.” I didn’t scream it out loud, like my adopted sister did (a sexual abuse survivor, who’s story also needs to be heard), because I was screaming so loud inside, without anyone knowing. It felt safer that way. I was attempting to deal with my own internal “hell” and protecting myself from more loss. I was so scared of once again being abandoned, alone, unloved, that I just kept my mouth shut and my feelings to myself. This is one reason why children, who have been in foster care, do not share their feelings and keep them bunched up inside because there is so much fear of being rejected again, of being given away – that they will keep that paper so tightly crumpled they can forget it’s even there. My strength comes in part from luck… I had experienced real love and the healing power of it, from my birth father who visited me in Jewish Child Care, from my foster family, and now from my adoptive parents who through all their human flaws, loved me and WANTED me. I think at some point I realized that I was loved, I was wanted, and that I mattered. I was important to someone and amidst all of the chaos which began the seed of resilience…