FREE monthly open support group for ADULT ADOPTEE MEMBERS of the Adoption Constellation.
A place for Adult Adoptees ONLY to come together to share stories, thoughts, feelings, and ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief/loss, and build strong bonds and connections. The group is facilitated by Cathy Leckie Koley, Adoptee and Post-Adoption Coach.
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 8th, 2021
5 pm – 7 pm PST
8 – 10 pm EST
Time and place are also shown in the Events Calendar. Meetings held virtually via ZOOM until further notice.
Please register below to receive your ZOOM link for the event.
Cathy Leckie Koley BIO:
Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Instructor, Adoptee Speaker/ Writer / Educator. After reuniting with her birth family at age 43, Cathy found herself on an unexpected healing journey related to her own relinquishment. The process included yoga, through which she found significant healing, and a new career path. As a yoga teacher since 2012, Cathy teaches others about the adoptee experience, strategies for unearthing and healing adoption wounds, and mind-body practices that help with adoption-related difficulties. Trained in Trauma-Sensitive in 2014 with Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, and David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga. Cathy is currently pursuing an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Affirming the Adoptee’s Reality: A Way to Intimacy
by Marcy Axness, Ph.D., Adoptee
The young child knows when the truth is being told and when it isn’t. It’s just amazing how much little children know of you, within and without.—Patricia McNulty, adoptee and Waldorf kindergarten teacher
The road leading up to adoption is invariably a painful one for parents, marked by many losses: the children they might have had, but for infertility; the child or children they lost through miscarriage, stillbirth, or death; and sometimes even pieces of themselves feel chipped away – their feelings of competence, wholeness, worthiness, and so many other essential components of self.
By the time their long-awaited adopted child is placed in their arms, parents usually – and understandably – just want to put all the heartache behind them and move on into the joyful realms of mothering and fathering. But the very real feelings of loss that attend adoption need to have a place in the story of the adoptive family, or they can cast ever-lengthening shadows on the relationship between parents and child.
Adopted kids often grow up with the mantra “being adopted is just another way to become a family.” This is a dismissive characterization of a profound experience that has involved not only the parents’ deep losses but the child’s loss of the parents who couldn’t keep him. With the best of intentions, adoptive parents often convey half-truths about the implications of adoption to shield their child from the pain of loss that is inherent in the experience.
Understanding The First Reality
“I lost my mother soon after I was born.” If I were to say this to a stranger, the response would surely be shock and sympathy for my loss: “I’m so sorry for you.” But if I tell that stranger, “I was adopted,” the response is usually, “Really, that’s wonderful, how nice for you.”
If we are to affirm an adoptee’s reality, we need to remember that she did, in fact, lose her mother soon after birth (in the case of an infant adoption). And while she may have been blessed with wonderful, loving, adoptive parents, this blessing was preceded by a profound loss. For a newborn to be separated from her biological mother is a trauma, both psychological and physiological, that is felt and processed and manifested in the lives of adoptees according to their individual temperaments, personalities, and physical, emotional, and spiritual constitutions.
There are two realities that a parent needs to accept in order to have an authentic relationship with an adopted child:
- My child has two mothers and two fathers.
- My child came to me not as a blank slate, but with a history of connection and of loss.
Adoptees – like all other people – have their roads to travel. Our “life journeys” come with certain burdens and lessons which help make us who we are. I believe that I am living exactly the life I was supposed to, and I have no regrets. But whether it was God’s plan or simply my destiny that I came into this earthly life as an adoptee, I still needed and craved compassion and acknowledgment for my losses, and for my reality, before I could truly move on to the business of living my life. The goal as I see it isn’t to try to fix things so that adoptees no longer have a burden, but rather to do whatever we can to help them remain connected with their inner truth instead of alienated from it. We can do this by affirming the adoptee’s reality.
The Heart of Open Adoption
Whether one has an “open adoption”, a “semi-open adoption”, an “international adoption”, or a “closed adoption”, these terms refer to the mechanics of the adoption, not to the way it feels. To have an “open-of-heart” adoption is to have the ability to affirm the adoptee’s reality, without flinching: “It was sad that you had to leave your other mother. I bet you miss her. Yes, you really do have two mothers.” Reality. Affirmed. Ahhh… that makes sense, my feelings make sense, everything makes sense now. I know what’s real.
The Gift of “What is So”
If you go to any park on any day in any city, you will see a child fall and start to cry – and then you will see his mother swoop him up and begin to chant incessantly to him, “You’re okay, you’re okay, no blood, you’re okay!” Meanwhile, the child continues to wail. Only very occasionally will a parent tell a child, “Yes, I saw that you tripped over that bucket and fell down. And that hurt, didn’t it?” Or maybe, “That was pretty scary, huh?” She reflects her child simply what is so – not what she wishes were so, or what she might prefer to be so. Her child’s crying ebbs and he is soon ready to get back to his business of playing. He has been heard.
Sadly, when we respond to our children like the first woman in the park, when we try to impose our preferred reality, our myth, upon them, we insidiously lure them – day by day – away from their own inner knowing, their inner truth. And that is when they become infinitely vulnerable in the world, for then they have lost their intuitive compass.
The other devastating consequence is that we erode our child’s trust when we don’t reflect the truth back to him. When we tell a child, “There’s nothing sad about adoption, it’s just another way to become a family,” he begins to lose his compass, and the ability to distinguish whether or not there are feelings of loss or hurt inside him. He will also lose any sense of trust for – and connection to – the parent who repeatedly discounts his experience and his reality. What incredible blessings come when we are able to affirm our child’s reality, because doing so builds trust, and trust leads to intimacy.
Studies show that this kind of intimate connection between parents and children is the most effective protection for them in a world of peer pressure, drugs, sex, and other high-risk circumstances.
Adoptive Parents Need to Affirm Their Own Reality
Why would we tell a child, “You’re okay!” with such frantic conviction when he has clearly just suffered a hurt? Perhaps it is because we need so desperately to remind ourselves (or convince ourselves) that we’re okay. We have to keep tamped down all of our own hurts and fears and losses that have never been acknowledged, our own reality that has gone unaffirmed. This is the generational legacy of denial.
Jung said, “The most damaging thing to a child is the unlived lives of his parents.” I take this to mean the parts of the parent that have been unacknowledged, unexpressed, and ungrieved: the shadow. For adoptive parents, a critical piece in affirming their adopted child’s reality is affirming their own reality.
“Other mommies and daddies had to take what they got, but we got to choose you,” is another of the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive lies that some adoptive parents tell in an attempt to bolster their child’s positive sense of self. Perhaps these parents are attempting to “polish” the status of being adopted, and compensate for any undercurrents of social stigma to which the child might later be exposed. While it may not be appropriate to discuss every painful detail of their pre-adoptive situation, it is crucial for parents to share the essence of the truth with their adopted children, the feelings that hover beneath the facts.
Annette Baran, the author of the groundbreaking book, The Adoption Triangle, says that “Adoptive parents must weep with their child: ’We’re sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in Mommy’s tummy.’”
“I think parents don’t realize they’re allowed to show these feelings,” says Baran. “They think they have to present an unflagging cheerfulness about adoption, in order that the children will feel positive, too. This is a mistaken notion.”
Parents who demonstrate emotional openness send a healthy message to their child that he or she is allowed to express a full range of feelings, not just the “positive” ones.
“Parents whose children express sadness usually feel that they need to reassure them, rather than feel the sadness along with them. But having lost an original set of parents is something to feel sad about, and the best any parent can do for a child is to allow them to share those feelings of loss with them,” explains Baran.
Saying It Out Loud: “Adoption Was Our Second Choice”
We as a society are two-faced about adoption—publicly we laud it as a wonderful thing, while in our hearts we often scorn it. It’s second-choice. And in the secret minds of many, second-best as well. If we didn’t find adoption so contemptible, so laced with shame, why would our laws be so vehemently constructed to protect everyone from the shame returning to their doorsteps? So…why should adoptive parents feel any differently than others in society? Discovering that you can’t bear children and deciding to adopt doesn’t necessarily obliterate a lifetime of subliminal cultural attitudes about adoption. It may just mean you desperately want a baby in your arms.
Very few people in our society grow up dreaming that they’ll fall in love, get married, and adopt a child, or that they will have a child and give it to others to raise.
Adoptive parents need to address their own ambivalence about the very desirability of adoption if they are to avoid the kind of inauthentic, happy-face approach embodied in dismissive slogans like “adoption is just another way to become a family.”
Another challenge for adoptive parents is the nagging legacy of infertility and society’s ongoing lack of recognition of this as a profound loss. Parents need to be guided and supported in finding ways to do their mourning, so that the adoptive mother can say very sincerely and authentically to her child – not just mechanically following a script – “I’m sorry, too, that you didn’t grow in my tummy. It was sad for me that I couldn’t grow a baby, and it was sad for you and your other mother that you couldn’t stay together. But I am happy that you and I ended up together.” What an amazing, powerful connection can be forged here, on this common ground of loss. Affirming the adoptee’s reality is a key element in the secure, continuing relationship between parents and children.
How Do Parents Affirm Their Adopted Child’s Reality?
1. Affirm the Newborn’s Experience
In my article, “A Therapist Counsels Parents of Babies Separated From Mothers At Birth, “1 a perinatal therapist offers specific things parents can say – out loud – to a baby who has been separated from his mother. Infants who have recently experienced separation from their mothers will show signs of trauma – prolonged crying or almost no crying, flaccid body tone or extreme rigidity, tremendous startle responses, and/or an unwillingness to make eye contact or to be held or comforted. Instead of feeling that the child is rejecting them, parents can say to this baby, “You miss your other mother. You miss your connection. You’ve lost something very important, and I understand, and I’m going to be here for you. It’s all right to be sad.” They can hold the baby, and let the baby mourn because this is what the baby needs to do.
The time to begin affirming an adoptee’s reality is at the very beginning; this lays a foundation of openness and honesty. Using the words, out loud, before the child even has language, it is our energetic message that is conveyed to her, telling her that we are connecting with the knowledge of loss that is in her bones, beyond words.
2. Tell Him the Story of His Birth
Children love to hear about the time in their mother’s womb, the day they were born, and the day they came home. It helps to lay a foundation for them of connectedness to their family and to this earth. It grounds them. Typically, it isn’t a story that adoptees get to hear. We grow up with the vague sense that we were hatched from a very special, top-secret file. This is one of the beauties of open adoption, in which it is possible to create a child’s “life book”, containing the birth parents’ pictures and information. This can lead to natural conversations about the birth parents: what color eyes the birth father has, what his hobbies are, the birth mother’s favorite song, whether she rides horses or likes to rollerblade, what she liked to do during her pregnancy. All such conversations are opportunities to affirm the adoptee’s reality.
3. Offer Her Stories, Songs, and Images that might Resonate with her Experience
As with all children, parenting an adopted child is not an exact science, but an intuitive one. It asks that you look deeply into your unique child and find what will resonate with her. Trial and error is often the path to gold in this realm. There are many great stories of separation, self-discovery, loss, and redemption. There are many great stories about children without their biological parents—Moses, Pinocchio, Merlin, and Arthur all were fostered away from home toward great destinies. These kinds of more symbolic, literary, artistic representations are wonderful to use. It invites the child’s imagination in. For me, Thumbelina, the story of a perfect little girl who was delivered from a flower, provided me with a powerful connection that — at age four or five — I didn’t begin to understand cognitively, which was its beauty. Thumbelina gave me a symbolic context for the primal feelings that lay at my core. That story, in some way, gave me a home for my soul.
Stories, drawings, and other types of creative expression can inspire the child’s imagination, and that is critical in supporting the development of a child’s healthy will forces. These approaches offer the child as many different colors and brushes and textures as possible with which to envision his own life, his experience, and himself. (Be careful not to undermine the value of this approach by “narrating” or over-commenting on the child’s expressions. more »
4. Take A Spiritual Approach
Holding an awareness of a child’s experience, without even saying a word, can be tremendously healing for the child and for the entire family. There is a growing body of evidence for the healing power of prayer, or of simply holding a vision of the person as a whole, healthy, completely loved, and at peace.
Another way to work on this level is to sit by the child’s bed while he sleeps, and “talk” to his unconscious, either silently or aloud. “I am safe in my world. It is safe for me to trust and to give and accept love. My mother and father will always be here for me. It is alright for me to feel sad or angry and to talk to my parents about it… they will affirm my true experience and my feelings.” This is a simple but incredibly powerful way to affirm a child’s reality.
Reality is A Personal Affair
In a sense, we cannot know exactly what any particular adoptee’s reality is, since an individual’s reality is a product of many subjective perceptions, filtered through her unique emotional, psychological, and spiritual lenses. But if we affirm an adoptee’s honest experience – what it is that really happened to her – and offer her a palette of contexts through which to own that experience, we will weave a vital connection with that child. Our gift in return will be her sense of trust and her resulting willingness to share with us her reality, and her life. And that is called intimacy.
Jeanette Yoffe explains foster care to adoption from the child’s point of view.
The transition from foster care to adoption can be very difficult for a child and there are many challenges to take into consideration. The challenges center around separation and loss, trust, rejection, guilt and shame, identity, intimacy, loyalty, and mastery or power and control. I will primarily be dealing with children between the ages of six and twelve and their developmental stages. Followed by ways in which parents and therapists can understand how to help a foster or adopted child cope with these psychological complexities so the transition can be smoother for all involved.
I chose this topic because I was a foster child until the age of seven and was “finally” adopted. And having lived the experience, I know how helpless a child can feel and how helpless I have felt. Separation and loss from a family are very difficult emotionally for a child especially when they have formed an attachment. The pain, loss, and memories will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Since the age of 8, I have been in psychotherapy. Therapy has allowed me to take a deeper look at my own life and share it with others. Writing also helps me come to a deeper understanding and forgiveness for all of my families. And with that deep understanding, I hope to educate others of a child’s needs in foster care and adoption so that the pain will be eased that much more for generations to come.
First, I would like to define the difference between foster care and adoption:
- Foster care provides temporary relief care for children. Children generally are placed in foster care by child welfare agencies. But, some of these children are voluntarily placed in foster care when circumstances, such as illness, death or adolescent pregnancy prevent their parents from caring for them. In cases of child abuse or neglect, social service agencies may remove children involuntarily and place them with foster parents. Most foster placements are made with the intention of reuniting the biological family at a later time although the percentages are low. Agencies also place children in foster care while searching for adoptive parents.
- Adoption is a procedure by which people legally assume the role of “parents” for a person who is not their biological child. Adopted children become full members of their adopted family and have the same status as biological children. The majority of people who adopt are married couples, of all ethnic, racial, religious backgrounds, same-sex couples, as well as single-household families.
Children in foster care are forced to deal with many emotions starting with the aftermath of abandonment. They often feel unwanted and unloved because they “psychologically feel” a physical and emotional abandonment from their birth parents. Some children have been moved from place to place so often, (statistical average is 3-4 placements) they believe it is because of something they must have done to cause this and as a result begin to internalize their pain and blame themselves causing intense shame. They suffer from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is defined as a grief reaction to unresolved loss. (Lifton, 1994) This separation is associated with the visceral feeling of loss from the time of that first separation from the birth mother. (Lifton, 1994) It is very traumatic for the child and difficult to grieve.
Most children try to repress their feelings because they become too difficult to handle. Even the mere thought of saying “goodbye” to a friend, can be very traumatic, for fear they may never see that person again. Some children develop chronic illnesses as a result of their constant anxiety such as stomach aches, headaches, allergies, asthma chronic fatigue or stuttering as a result of separation from their mother. There is a close association between gastrointestinal functioning and emotional states. The ‘not being able to stomach” their pain is closely related to the unconscious fear of another abandonment or the deprivation of food or further nurturing. (Nancy Newton Verrier, 1993)
They can feel easily frightened and scared. They can understand cognitively the situation they are in is only temporary and that they can be moved at any time. However to psychologically survive the experience some children will develop a rich fantasy life, which allows them to escape from painful memories. This escaping is a coping mechanism that is learned early on. Children can seem like they are in a trance by their emotional detachment or passivity in normal activities. Also called dissociation. Any type of mental activity seems difficult because it involves the memory – something foster children are trying to keep at bay. (Verrier, 1993) It is common for many foster children to be diagnosed with A.D.D or A.D.H.D.
In middle childhood, children are beginning to understand the meanings and implications of events but this can be very difficult for them. They can’t fully comprehend what is happening to them, so some children choose another coping mechanism; “the fight or flight mode.” The flight mode develops a fantasy world that takes them away from their present situation to the extent of believing their biological mother will come back and rescue them. While the latter develops deep anger and will act out or fight feeling anything. Their fear is risking further rejection. They will hide their feelings and emotions in fear of getting hurt again. Some children will mask their pain and hide behind a “false self” which they subconsciously create for themselves as a coping mechanism. But by masking their pain and denying their painful feelings will only get worse and lead to depression. The immense pain can lead to anger which can become internalized and lead to suicide or self-mutilation, another way of trying to unleash their painful depression.
When a child is moved from foster care to adoption there are many things to take into consideration how a child understands this transition. The child now has a permanent place to call home. Even though it is now “official” he/she may still not believe that they will not be abandoned again. Not only has the child left his/her biological family but has now left a second family and is moving onto the third if they were not in more than one foster home before. The child now experiences another loss to suffer, loss of the foster family.
With the loss of the foster family, they are now told who the “real” Mommy and Daddy are. The feelings are bittersweet on the one hand it is all very exciting but on the other, there is a lot of unresolved loss and confusion. There is an intense love and intense sadness dynamic which occurs.
Foster children are often ashamed of their past and unsure of the present. Some children are so used to the experience they are ready at any moment to pack up and leave. I remember as a child being very neat and knowing where all of my few belongings were “just in case” I needed to leave again, I was ready.
When a child is finally adopted and no longer in foster care, there are new beginnings but much is left be said of their pasts. Most adoptive parents don’t want to relive what their child has experienced but they will ultimately have to join, understand, grieve with and help make sense of their child’s past with them. These are things that become issues for newly adoptive families.
- Birthdays are critical times. This day brings them back to their birth and their birthmother and questions about family or origin. It can bring up issues of loss or anger and empty feelings. They feel disconnected from their past. The British researcher H.J. Sants coined the term “genealogical bewilderment” in 1964 to describe this sense of disconnectedness. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
- There will be an ethnic and racial awareness of their new family. Do they look like them? What are our similarities? Physical characteristics help children define themselves and make connections with others. Feelings of belonging and security are nurtured by looking like the people around you and when they are absent children become confused. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) Additional issues arise when adopted children come from a different culture than their adoptive parents. Adoptions in which the adoptive parents and their adopted child are of different races, known as transracial adoptions, pose special difficulties. When children belong to a different race than either of their parents, others in the community very quickly become aware that the children are adopted. Transracial adoptive families often face everything from innocent curiosity to outright hostility and prejudice. Many adoptive parents educate themselves about their child’s birth culture so that they can offer their child support and help build self-esteem.
- Separation anxiety can occur. For example staying over a friend’s house, going to school or to camp. Adoptees have trouble leaving home or going to college. While other teenagers are separating from their parents and turning to people outside the family circle, many adoptees fear to venture far from the only place that stands between them and the void. (Lifton, 1994)
- There may be a testing-out period. The child may try to provoke the very rejection he/she fears most. They will reject the parents before the parents can reject them. It is as if the child cannot trust that he/she will not again be abandoned. (Verrier, 1993)
On the other hand, some children will have the burning desire to excel in school, in sports, in their careers and rearing a family. They may become very successful at everything they do in order to please others and be accepted by others. One adoptee puts in clearly “… when they said, “Jump!” I asked, “How high!”
Many adoptees will say they feel as if a “part of them is missing”, they have difficulty with their identity and what they are supposed to be? They are longing to find that part of themselves that has been lost.
As an adoptee develops, he/she will struggle with feelings of duality or duplicity. In dual identity, there is a false self as an adoptee and a real self in relation to the biological family. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992) What this means is the initial self that was exposed and rejected is now hidden behind another self in order to protect the real self from being hurt again. So, it’s like they are living in two worlds.
As therapists and prospective adoptive parents, how can we help these children?
Adoptees have, by the very act of adoption, go through a lot. By the time adoptees are adults, they have survived separation from their birth parents, have acclimated to a new family, have dealt with fantasy and fears, have confronted identity issues, and have navigated relationships. The awareness of having survived such stages and transitions can give the adoptee’s strength and determination in various areas of their lives. The downside of this feeling of survival is that some adoptees find it difficult to depend on others and instead are very independent. It is important for adoptees to realize that healthy relationships involve interdependence- depending on one’s self and depending on others. (Russell, 1996)
Understand the difference between attachment and bonding, two terms often used interchangeably. It is safe to say that most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive parents. This is a kind of emotional dependence, which may seem crucial to their survival. Bonding, on the other band, may not be so easily achieved. It implies a profound connection, which is experienced at all levels of human awareness. As an infant, bonding instills a child with a sense of well-being and wholeness necessary for healthy emotional development. (Verrier, 1993) When the bond is interrupted the child does not develop a bond with the birth mother and his/her needs have not been met.
Nancy Verrier, a clinical psychologist and adoptive mother said ‘The severing of that connection between adopted child and his birthmother causes a primal or narcissistic wound, which affects the adoptee’s sense of self and manifests in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, anxiety and depression, emotional or behavioral problems, and difficulties in relationships with significant others. And that abandoned baby lives inside each and every adoptee all his or her life.”
Parents need to understand that the foster child or adopted child they are getting comes with a past, which they may never be able to fully comprehend. Parents need to try not to mold their child into their fantasy of what they want him or her to be for them. The child is who they already are especially if the child is coming to them at an older age.
In order to understand an adoptee’s past parents and therapists need to listen and be there for them because they will have a lot of pain. Difficult as it is for parents to watch their adopted children try to deal with the pain of adoption or foster related loss, they can do nothing to spare them. They can, however, help ease the process by providing a supportive, nurturing environment in which the emotional storms of grieving can be weathered. Be available and listen, help them clarify their emotions, and accept whatever” feelings they are expressing and accept them as valid. (Verrier, 1993)
The following is the Adoptee ‘s Bill of Rights written by Sherrie Eldridge, a psychologist, who was also adopted:
I have the right to feel confused.
After all, I have had two sets of parents, one of which was shrouded in secrecy.
I have the right to fear abandonment and rejection.
After all, 1 was abandoned by the one I was most intimate -with.
I have the right to acknowledge the pain.
After all, I lost my closest relative at the youngest age possible.
I have the right to grieve.
After all, everyone else in society acknowledges strong emotions.
I have a right to express my emotions.
After all, they have been shut down ever since adoption day.
By parent’s nonjudgmental responses, parents can show their children that these ups and downs are normal, real, acceptable—and temporary. (Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz, 1992)
Remind adoptees of their strengths, competence, and worth as people. This helps them gain some esteem over the deep sense of helplessness. Look for the opportunities and help express them. Foster and adopted children will gain a greater sense of self and pride … that which is mostly absent.
Expose adoptee’s to other adoptee’s so they can receive validation by hearing another person’s story. This will create bonding which is something that was lost for the adoptee. It will give them the freedom to be themselves with those like themselves. Learn more about the support I began in Los Angeles, The Adopt Salon.
Coming from experience, adoption is not an easy task for all involved. One adoptee put it well, “It’s like getting to the end of the book and you have two more pages left and you lose the book.” Adoption, I feel, like life is a process. It is an issue, which needs to be dealt with properly, so the experience can be beautiful for all. Each person from child to parent is ultimately giving each other what they were searching for in the first place: love and a family. It is a beautiful dichotomy that unfortunately is taken for granted every day.
Learn more about OPEN ADOPTION HERE:
Brodzinsky, David M., Schechter, Marshall and Henig Marantz, Robin. (1992).
Being Adopted-The Lifelong Search for Self. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Eldridge, Sherrie. (1999). Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Lifton, Betty Jean. (1994). Journey of the Adopted Self. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Miller, Alice. (1997). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: BasicBooks.
Russell, Marlou. (1996). Adoption Wisdom. Santa Monica, CA: Broken Branch Productions.
Verrier, Nancy Newton. (1993). The Primal Wound. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press
Featuring Jeanette Yoffe, M.A., M.F.T., Marriage and Family Therapist, founder and executive director of the Celia Center. 5 Hours of Continuing Education.
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My first job in the Los Angeles child welfare system was as a paraprofessional volunteer at the Stephen S. Weiss Temple Adoption Support Center under the supervision of Stephanie Siegel, PhD. I mentored children who were adopted, assisted with support groups, and helped answer questions about my experience at special events and panels for families. I didn’t think much of it because at the time, because I was busy trying to be an actress! I had written and performed a play, which shed light on growing up in foster care with the objective to share “what it feels like.” I did benefits for local foster care and adoption organizations, and it was at a Q & A, with county social workers and psychotherapists that I realized I knew more than the professionals knew, about the psychological and emotional impact of growing up in foster care and the light bulb went on. “I think I want to work with children and families connected by foster care and adoption!”
So, I went back to school to pursue a Master’s Degree in Psychology, and was hired not as a psychotherapist first, but as a Foster Care Social Worker at Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency under the direction of Sylvia Fogelman and worked with children in the foster care system referred by the Department of Child and Family Services in Los Angles County. She said to me, “Trust your instincts, you have a lot to offer.” No one had ever told me that. I was compelled to do what she had instilled in me, and I learned endlessly about the foster care system in Los Angeles.
I drove to children’s homes in a 1985 Mazda Rx7, transported them to and from birth family visits and/or doctor’s appointments, monitored visits, talked with mothers helping them see how important they were to their children, recognized the stigma parents had about birth families as “junkies” or “bad people”, heard that social workers were making promises to children about returning to their families when parents were already AWOL. Every other day a foster parent’s call would begin with, “How can I give my 7-day notice?” I was overwhelmed, and kept asking myself, how do we all get on the same page?
Then in 2006, I wanted to start taking some small steps on my own, so I started a private practice, became a Medi-cal provider, doing attachment therapy with children and families connected by foster care and adoption. I answered parents questions over and over, about attachment, trust, grief reactions….” foster kids are grieving the loss of their previous situation…even if it was scary” “trauma impacts the brain and behavior…” “do you know any foster alumni you can speak to?” “have you read more about a birth mother’s experience?” “do you know any adoptees?” “Please make friends with other families like yours, this will be a lifelong process.”
I continued to question, where are the others out there like me? How can we help each other understand? How can I help eliminate the stigma of birth families? How can I help families understand the lifelong impact? I realized parents needed more support and education outside of therapy. The “whole system” needed more support and education of knowing together “what is the best interest of the child?”. And most importantly it would be beneficial if they could all hear it together, sit in the question together, and find solutions together.
So in 2009, I called a local adoption agency, Vista Del Mar Agency, and asked if they would host a support group I named Adopt Salon Constellation named after the book by Micheal Grand, The Adoption Constellation… where he writes…
“Openness helps everyone in the adoption constellation. It heals relationships and helps to guide how the birth family is part of the adoptive family, and how the adoptive family is part of the birth family. We have to think of that relationship in both directions, which is different than a totally closed adoption where we pretend that the birth family never existed. This is why we need to think about the adoption constellation. The constellation includes all the people involved in the adoption experience: siblings, both birth and adopted, extended families, social workers, teachers, religious leaders, and legislators. A constellation model allows for them all to influence the experience and recognizes changes in relationships over time. Some may drift away, some may become closer.”
After reading the book, I chose to include foster care to the equation too, because I was raised in foster care and many of the families I worked with were in foster care. This voice in child welfare needed understanding too.
And 60 people showed up to the first group! It was shocking! I finally felt that I had found a “ real solution” to a “ real problem”. Adopt Salon. The support group was and still is a success and has become couples “date night” on the first Wednesday of the scheduled months.
Goals of Adopt Salon:
#1: Bring everyone together- first mothers, first fathers, foster youth alumni, foster parents, kinship caregivers, legal guardians, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, siblings, relatives, and significant others in one room. Yes, I repeat, in one room!
#2: Provide a space to share each other’s stories in an emotionally safe environment, with a non-biased facilitator, who could hold each different voice and point of view with respect and regard. Which was me, the voice of the child welfare system having regard for all those who help a child navigate the child welfare system, and find a forever family.
#3: Create a list of safe and healthy boundaries. “We are here to share stories, thoughts, feelings, and ideas, receive psycho-education, process grief, and loss, build strong bonds and connections. There is no criticizing, judgment, or unsolicited advice given unless requested, when sharing all shares must be expressed in an “I message.” If you have a question, that person has a right to respond or say “no thank you. You can also be an OWL – observe, watch and listen so that your feelings can inform a proactive response, rather than reactive response. And most importantly, understand there are many voices in child welfare, and many different points of view because…”
“If you look at a tree from one angle, that’s the only angle you are going to get!”
How the group works:
We start by going around the group, each person states their name, their connection to adoption or foster care, say if they have any questions, pressing issues or shares, so the facilitator can return back to them to open up a group discussion.
Common themes that come up are the struggles with parenting a child with early childhood trauma, helping them change the paradigm from “what’s wrong with him to what happened to him?”, understanding grief and loss for the adoptee and foster youth and first-birth mother or father, shifting the way first-birth mothers and fathers are perceived as people with their “own unmet mental health needs”, and having the courage to acknowledge that we can and are grieving these losses together. And lastly, by acknowledging this commonality, this will help us see the connection of what’s truly “in the best interest for the child”.
There are stories shared about mothers who were forced to surrender their children due to no fault of their own and those whose families did not support them in keeping their child. There are stories of mothers, who genuinely wanted their children, who were not ready to be mothers, were also products of the foster care system and yet still wanted to be a part of their children’s lives but not knowing how. Then we discuss open adoption and how that works. And teaching foster parents, how to convey their child’s stories to them in an “age-appropriate way” and helping families who have not, still to this day, told their children they were adopted as infants. There are stories of foster youth alumni who ran away from home due to the abuse they endured and needed their foster families to understand how badly they were hurting and what they truly needed during those times.
There have also been special guests at Adopt Salon, representing different points of view, i.e. professionals who are also part of the constellation such as Marcy Axness, Marlou Russell, Dee Dee Mascarenas, Noah Rothchild, Maureen Donley, Santana Dempsey, Briana Spencer, foster youth alumni, adult adoptees, and first mother Kelsey Stewart.
Where we are today:
The support group is held four times a year, on the first Wednesday of March, June, September, and December from 7-9pm at Vista Del Mar Adoption Agency.
Starting in October and November 2019, we will be hosting a new system of support, called Adopt-ED Salon Open House, which is a bi-annual open house bringing together people in the foster care and adoption constellation with those who have an interest in the community including social workers, therapists, prospective adoptive or foster parents, among others.
The mission of the open house is to increase awareness, facilitate community and encourage dialogue in a minimally-structured, non-clinical environment. This format allows people to have private conversations with any member of the constellation, ask questions that they always thought about asking and never had the opportunity to do before to break down the walls. Adopt-ED Salon Open House was developed by our board member, Carra Greenberg, lawyer, and an adult adoptee.
For 10 years now we have been learning, via Adopt Salon Constellation, how to break down the walls of the negative stigma, how to support one another with respect and compassion, and start saying “we and us” together, so we can be the constellation of change together, as a community.
In 2014, an ADOPT SALON RESEARCH STUDY was conducted HERE on the efficacy of this group.
93% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:
- The support group increased their knowledge
- 94% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that
- The support group provided a safe place for them to share stories, thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
87% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:
- The support group provided opportunities for them to process grief and loss.
- The support group provided them with opportunities to build strong bonds and connections with others.
91% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:
- They are able to understand themselves better because of this group.
96% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that:
- They will recommend this group to others
- I understand my adopted daughter much more since coming to this group.
- Priceless information regarding the emotional well-being of the adoption and foster community.
- Being able to understand, relate, and talk an adoptee and foster youth.
- Learning how to approach an upcoming reunion.
- Developing a better relationship and intimacy with family.
- Gaining priceless and useful information regarding the emotional well-being of the adoption and foster care community.
- I recommend the group to anyone in the adoption triad!
As said by James L. Gritter, author of Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption says:
The birth family creates the life.
The adoptive and foster family sustain the life,
and together, they affirm the child’s life.
The Adopt Salon Constellation Support group was created by CeliaCenter.org, helping families become whole again one group, one family, one person at a time.
Jeanette Yoffe, M.A., M.F.T. founded the non-profit she named, Celia Center, after her first mother, Celia. Celia Center is a mental health center that meets the critical needs of all those connected by Foster Care and Adoption and all those who serve the community of Foster Care and Adoption in Los Angeles and beyond. Year-round, they host mental health conferences, training, workshops, support groups, arts festivals, family outings, and wolf healings.
For more information please visit Celia Center’s website at www.CeliaCenter.org
Watch HERE what people say about Celia Center and Adopt Salon Constellation Support Groups