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 were 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 six and a half years I had been living with a foster family, they had become my family. Not foster, not temporary, but real. A family to me.
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 from 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 forties 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 seven, 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.
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 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. They were my sisters. Or were they?
A professional woman named Barbara Horowitz came to my foster home to talk with me. 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 my foster 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.”
The following week Mrs. Horowitz pulled up outside my foster 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 mother, and took Patrick and I 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 little 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.
We never did; Argentina would have to wait another 25 years.
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.