My first job in the Los Angeles child welfare system was as a paraprofessional volunteer at the Stephen S. Weiss Temple Adoption Support Centerunder 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.
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.
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.
Jeanette was inspired in 2007, after working for five years, as a Foster Care Social Worker and Psychotherapist, with the agency, Southern California Foster Family Agency, now named, Extraordinary Families. She went on maternity leave, became a mother, and started a private practice working with families connected by foster care and adoption, she named Yoffe Therapy. In 2009, she could see foster and adoptive parents did not understand the foster care experience, let alone the adoptee experience. It was then, that she started the Adopt Salon Support Group, to bring adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents together to bridge compassion and understanding with the vision to create as many of these services as possible for the Los Angeles Community, those including mental health conferences, arts festivals, and wolf healings. Thus creating a place called Celia Center, named after her first-birth mother, Celia, whom she had reunion with in
Jeanette’s desire to become a child therapist with a special focus on adopted and foster care issues derived from her own experience of being adopted and moving through the foster care system in New York City. Her personal experience has informed her education and provided insight into the unique stresses involved with these issues. Because of Jeanette’s life experience she can more easily connect and relate to the children and teens she works with. She is an exceptional child-care worker who is dedicated to helping each of her clients reach their full potential through mental health therapy and make the difficult journey from despair towards resiliency and hope.