Jeanette Yoffe: My First Journey in Child Welfare

As I reflect back, I think of three different “journeys” that were critical in my personal development. This post will introduce the “first journey”, which began in New York City in 1971. That was the year I was born at Bellevue Hospital.

After leaving the hospital I lived with my biological mother and father for 15 months in a small New York apartment on the Lower East Side. At the time, my parents were married. I was an only child, and I’m told I loved to go to the park and play every day if I could.

My father worked for New York Telephone as a lineman, and my mother had a work visa from Argentina to be a dancer. My mother became pregnant for the second time when I was six months old, but I never had a chance to meet that baby brother. I was placed into foster care at 15 months, 2 months before my brother would be born.

This is the story of how I was “surrendered,” as it was told to me, 30 years later in an apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after the baby brother and I had ‘found’ each other and then our biological mother through the help of the Internet.  (More on that in a later column.)

On a sunny August day in New York City, while I was happily playing in a park sand box, my birthmother told a woman, sitting on a nearby bench, how ‘stressed out’ she was. She told this random stranger that being pregnant and caring for me at the same time was just “too much for her.” The woman then told her to “go to Jewish Child Care,” a foster care agency.

“They will take care of Jeanette for a little while so you can get some rest.” Which is exactly what she did! Apparently, she did not speak very good English, had only been in the country for a few years, appeared shaken, stressed and overwhelmed. She would tell me years later that at the agency they had her sign a document but as she did so she was thinking, “I was only going to be taken care of for a few weeks” not, in fact, surrendered for adoption. Which, of course, is what happened.

In a letter from Jewish Child Care, dated July 29, 2004, I received some non-identifying information about the circumstances of my early separation. It was stated, “your birthmother was emotionally quite fragile and was apparently under additional stress during her second pregnancy.”

An agency psychiatrist felt she might be schizophrenic but noted she had reported taking LSD, which of course makes such a diagnosis tentative.

So on August 10, 1972, I was placed into a foster home in Long Island, about 40 minutes outside New York City with a nice Jewish family.  On a side note: It wasn’t until I was 17, talking with my foster sister, that I learned I wasn’t really Jewish; I was born Roman Catholic.

I was shocked! My foster family had apparently put me in a high chair, drew a Jewish star on my head, and sprinkled water on my forehead and made me Jewish! At 13, I had a Bat-mitzvah and everything! I had no inkling this wasn’t the religion into which I was born.

The records I’ve been able to see indicate numerous visits with my birth parents, even after I entered foster care. I’m not sure exactly how many but the letter states “frequently.” When I think about this today, it just tears my heart. How difficult and confusing must it have been for me to see my birth parents for a short while and then watch them go away every time. Leaving me over and over again.

What is a baby to think? Over and over, I probably thought they were not coming back and would never see them again. Only to have them come and all those expectations flood. And through it all I don’t recall anyone sitting down and talking to me, explaining what was happening… I was alone.

Presently, I often think of that time period and how helpless I must have felt and vulnerable and guilty. But now as an adult and a licensed psychotherapist, I find I am able to fill that hole and help explain to children and their families exactly what is happening!

There is enough mystery in adoption. I feel we owe it to the children involved to keep them as informed as possible. My experience as a foster care social worker for four years gave me the opportunity to do this day in and day out inside foster homes of every sort. Every day of the week I would watch the babies have visits with their birth families and I would identify with each and every one of them.

I understood their cries and I understood what they needed deep inside. I would take the babies to and from visits in my little Toyota all across Los Angeles. I would talk to them and let them know I heard their cry. I would be with them through all their tears and tell them “everything is going to be okay.” I wanted them to know they were loved and accepted.

Before I entered this field, I hoped the experience of social work would become a “corrective emotional experience” because I would be in control now as an adult and no longer a helpless victim as a child. I could now make sense of my past, open up to my grief, feel my grief…. and cry so I could let it go.

It has to some degree, it has helped me reach this epiphany. But the feelings are always there. And this is another important piece of that epiphany: we cannot change the facts about our pasts, the reality will always be there, however cold or frightening.

We can change the way we feel about it, because “being adopted” is not the condition. The condition is the lifelong process of working through our loss, mourning our loss and picking up the pieces we want to keep and discarding those that we don’t want in order to reframe our lives in such a way that makes us richer and more resilient beings.

Jeanette Yoffe is the founder of Celia Center, a non-profit support center for all those connected by foster care/adoption within the constellation and beyond.

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