“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”—Nelson Mandela.
It’s hard to argue with Mr. Mandela, except I would add “and the elderly” to his quote. The children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, abused, neglected and abandoned in Los Angeles County, California, and the social workers, legal and lay advocates who try to make their young clients’ lives worth living are the focus of Foster, the new feature-length documentary by filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris.
Academy Award® winners for another fine film that celebrates those who courageously moved children out of harm’s way (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport), Oppenheimer and Harris now set their sights on the kids, foster parents and professionals who currently populate the largest child protection agency in the United States. There are no flesh and blood villains profiled in Foster, only their collateral damage… the battered souls and haunted memories of the kids left behind by their biological parents to navigate the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.
A tribute to the incredible resilience of these kids and their advocates, several of whom are profiled in the film, Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.
The statistics are chilling: “One in eight American children suffer abuse or neglect by age 18” and there are “more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S.” But as depressing as those stats sound, the filmmakers focus instead not on the losses but on the wins, the baby steps that have given these kids a second chance at life.
After years of being shuffled through the revolving door of foster and group homes and juvenile detention centers, the kids–ranging in age from eight through preteen and teenage, college and young adulthood–are remarkably articulate and personable. All have stories to tell about their tortuous past lives with biological and foster parents and years in the foster care system. Fortunately, those recollections are kept to a minimum.
By the time the filmmakers chose to tell their stories, the youngsters’ lives had taken a more promising turn. Several had found a welcoming home with compassionate foster parents or a safe haven under the supportive jurisdiction of caring social service and legal professionals, some of whom had even survived the system themselves as children.
Former foster child Jessica overcame horrific odds to continue her education and receive her Master’s degree, raise two healthy sons and build a professional career as an advocate and role model for foster kids who feel invisible without hope of ever building a productive life outside the foster care system.
Unable to have more than one biological child of her own, Mrs. Earcylene Beavers dreamed of having a large family and has welcomed more than 100 foster children into her home over the years. Some have remained with Mrs. Beavers permanently, a wish expressed and happily realized by members of her current brood, who include autistic Casi, and preteens Sydney and Denyshia.
As teenage Dasani struggles to give voice to the memory of watching his dad murder his mom, he also takes positive steps to redeem himself after making some bad moves in his group home and landing on probation.
The responsibilities of first time parents Chris and Raenne are scrutinized when their newborn daughter is thought to have been neurologically damaged by Raenne’s cocaine addiction. Chris steps up to the plate as the child’s full-time caregiver when Raenne is removed from their home and encouraged in her rehab efforts.
Having aged out of the traditional foster care system, beautiful 18-year-old Mary grapples with the demons that undermine her ability to remain in college. However, her dream of becoming an actress and her move into an modern, adult apartment with her biological sister provide the impetus for her to stick with college and commit to live a better tomorrow. “You can’t always write the beginning to your story,” stresses Mary, “but you can definitely write the end.”
Participant Media, the film’s co-producer with HBO Documentary Films and Emerson Collective, is launching a social impact campaign linked to the debut of Foster on HBO, including a ten-state screening tour of the film. Their goal is “to bring individuals, organizations, corporations and government agencies together to change perceptions of foster youth … and to accelerate solutions aimed at helping children and families thrive.”
Going forward, Foster will be an asset in college and university programs focusing on social work, juvenile justice and school psychology. The film also has evergreen potential as a discussion catalyst in foster care group therapy programs with young people and the professionals who serve them.
Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on DVD, HBO On Demand and streaming via HBO Max. –Judith Trojan