A New Lens on the Foster-Care Approach

Photo Credit: Erin Oveis Brant/Offset

This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers and was originally published as part of a series supported in part by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author or those quoted, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

This article is part of a series produced by our partners at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers. Media content has the power to shape perceptions and views on a mass scale. Unfortunately, media portrayals of youth in foster care are often negative and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. In this special blog series, the Center for Scholars & Storytellers is exploring this topic from multiple perspectives to inform and inspire the creation of accurate, empowering, and socially responsible media portrayals of foster care.

I had the privilege of talking with the filmmakers of the recent moving HBO documentary Foster, as well as the film’s featured social worker (and a former youth in foster care), Jessica Chandler. This documentary does an incredible job of showing how complex the foster-care system is and shines a light on common misperceptions and stereotypes. For content creators, hearing different perspectives about the foster-care system will only serve to benefit and inspire stories that are more reflective of what actually happens, and to create media that educates and moves the needle in a positive direction.

“I grew up in a family with some of the same issues that bring children into foster care,” says director Mark Harris when asked why he wanted to make a documentary on the subject. Thinking back on his childhood and the mental illness within his family, it became clear that, if they had been poorer or less privileged, he could easily have ended up in the foster-care system.

Even though there are more than 400,000 children in the system right now, the number of children who could enter the system based on the situations they’re in is extremely high. We often hear about extreme cases of abuse, but the majority of children enter the foster-care system because of neglect, which covers a wide range of issues and different levels of severity, including parents with the best of intentions who are simply in situations where they can’t provide their children with the kind of care they need and still work enough to pay the bills. 

Why Do Parents End Up in These Situations? 

  • Systemic inequality
  • Lack of mental health treatment
  • Prescription drug crisis

And this goes far beyond the foster-care system. “Disrupted childhoods from these issues, and more, are far too common,” explains Foster producer Deborah Oppenheimer. “We desperately need a new model of care, a public-health model that helps all families in need of support, a model that is preventative rather than punitive.”

One step in the right direction is referring to the system as “child services” rather than “child protection.” This is something Harris and Oppenheimer were encouraged to do in their documentary “because 'protection' implies that children need to be protected from someone, rather than supporting the family as a unit.”

“As it currently stands, the system intervenes at the time of crisis. We wait for something to go wrong,” explains Harris. “But these families need help before they go into crisis.”

“As it currently stands, the system intervenes at the time of crisis. We wait for something to go wrong,” explains Harris. “But these families need help before they go into crisis.” It’s worth noting that it’s a lot more effective (in both cost and outcome) to have a preventative model; this has also been found when addressing issues such as homelessness in various cities around the world. “It also can’t just be social workers involved. We need a multifaceted approach including health care workers, teachers, community members, and more,” says Oppenheimer.  

“Through the situations and stories they create, content creators have the opportunity to provide the context needed for understanding the realities behind why so many children enter the foster-care system,” Harris explains. “For instance, picture a single mother with no support. She needs to get a job to keep a roof over their head [or her child could be taken away]. So she goes to a job interview and the child stays unattended at home. If the police spot this or get alerted to it, that could be cause for the child being removed, depending on the child’s age. The other problem is that unconscious biases, particularly around race and poverty, too often play a role when a judgment call is made on whether or not a child should be removed.” 

Social worker Jessica Chandler, who was featured in Foster, shares these sentiments. “We need to rethink how and when foster care is implemented," she says. "Of course, in cases where kids are being abused, they should be removed. But in cases where parents have the love and good intentions and just need some help, money could be better spent going to support that family so the children can remain in the home.” Indeed, if they didn’t already have a problem, as soon as you remove a child from their home, they definitely will.

“People can’t buy into or believe these things if we don’t show them what it looks like,” explains Chandler. “And media can show these outcomes.” For example, the pediatric neurologist treating the infant featured in Foster told Harris and Oppenheimer that he now views mothers who use drugs during pregnancy differently after watching the documentary. 

So how exactly can content creators help? Chandler has multiple actionable insights for content creators:

  • Don’t demonize the birth parents. We need to understand them, and we do this by humanizing them.
  • Show how the best thing for a child is not always taking them away from their birth family.
  • Portray successful reunification stories so people understand that is the goal of foster-care system and can see what that looks like.

Author Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD, is a senior fellow of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers.


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