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.
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
Jeanette Yoffe was interviewed for this podcast on February 16, 2018.
Podcaster Haley Radke invites Jeanette Yoffe to share what inspired her to begin a support group for adoptees. Discussion covers how to start your own group and best practices for peer-facilitated groups.
If starting or joining a support group feels too intimidating, don’t worry! Jeanette has a great idea for free support: find a listening partner.
The Adoption Constellation: New Ways of Thinking About and Practicing Adoption by Michael Phillip Grand
Using the term adoption constellation vs adoption triad
Adopt Salon constellation groups can include: adoptees, adoptive parents, first parents, foster youth, foster alumni, foster families, social workers, spouses, siblings
Suggested Support Group Rules:
We support each other here, we don’t fix each other – no unsolicited advice
Everyone gets a turn to share (5 minutes). What’s your name, what are you here for – do you have a question, do you want support for something in particular? You can share briefly about your story.
You can ask questions if you do want advice.
You can be here and not share: OWL (Observe, Watch and Listen)
Keep everything confidential that is shared in the group
We need firm and safe group rules so we don’t experience secondary trauma
Constellation groups help us examine adoption from multiple angles; helps in growing compassion and acknowledging it is a shared experience.
Celia Center support groups have been featured on OWN’s Television Show, “Raising Whitley” and TLC’s “Long Lost Family”
If you can’t find a group, don’t feel comfortable going to a group, don’t want to start your own… Find a listening partner! Book a regular call that is to someone who will just listen. Listen, receive and acknowledge.
Support groups to listen, share and support; you can also have guests come in and present, maybe for 15 minutes on different topics – mindfulness, an education piece about trauma, sharing their story… but leave space for the group to still share and discuss.
If a group has different members of the adoption constellation present, it’s best to have a licensed therapist to facilitate. For peer-led support, just having adult adoptees (for example) is safer.
Celia Center Arts Festival | Adopting Resilience, Fostering the Spirit of Creativity
Celia Center Arts Festival 2016 Summary Video
Check out adopteesconnect.com for new peer-led groups starting in the United States (started by Pamela Karanova of How Does it Feel to be Adopted)
If you have another resource of places to find in-person adoptee support groups, please get in touch so I can list it here.
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, I was busy trying to be an actress! I had written and performed a play, titled “What’s Your Name, Who’s Your Daddy?” which sheds 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 adoption, 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 couple’s “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, and 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 of 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 children. 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.
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?’
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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.
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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…