The documentary's filmmakers say they hope the film helps audiences realize that children in foster care are "our children—not other people’s children."

By Maressa Brown
HBO

May 17, 2019

Within the opening scenes of HBO's new documentary Foster, viewers are presented with a staggering statistic: One in 8 American children suffer a confirmed case of neglect or abuse by age 18. Another eye-widening fact: There are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S. The film, which was produced by Participant Media, sheds light on the world of foster care in a way that no documentary has before. Over the course of a year and a half, producer Deborah Oppenheimer and director Mark Jonathan Harris followed foster kids of various ages, parents, social workers, lawyers, and judges in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, which is the largest child welfare system in the country. 

While the subject couldn't be any timelier, given that the Family First Prevention Services Act—which requires states to assist families that are at risk of entering a child into the welfare system—passed last year, it was 25 years ago that Oppenheimer was initially inspired to explore foster care in her work. 

"My mother had passed away at a young age in 1993, and my search for a way to deal with my grief led me to tutor in the local public elementary school," Oppenheimer tells Parents.com."There I met a positive, buoyant, 6-year-old boy named Patrick Perkins, who was already showing signs of leadership. When I asked the teacher for more information about Patrick, I learned he had been removed from his parents’ care and was living in an orphanage in Hollywood. I went home sobbing. I had never previously encountered a foster youth or the child protection system and was deeply affected by Patrick’s circumstances."

The Foster producer and Patrick, who just turned 31, have been close ever since. "He's a success story," Oppenheimer says. "He served with the Marines in Iraq and is currently enrolled in school and studying mechanical engineering. He never reunited with his parents, and I view him like my son, and he views me like his mother."

Given her experience, she had always "hoped to bring to the screen the richness of the individuals and a population that a great many had never encountered nor understood." 

In 2014, Oppenheimer and Harris, who had collaborated on the Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport in 2000, paired up again to begin what would become four years of work on Foster.

Harris' research further compelled him to illuminate the world of foster care for audiences. He tells Parents.com he couldn't find a film that "satisfactorily answered the questions I was asking about the foster care system. Foster is my attempt to answer them."

His previous work also informed his interest in the subject. "Many of the stories that I'm drawn to deal with children coping with problems that are not of their own making, problems created by adults," Harris explains. "I've made films and written young adult novels about children facing circumstances beyond their control: divorce, poverty, homelessness, war. The decision to enter foster care is not a choice made by children; it's a result of their parents' neglect, abuse, or inability to care for them and of the larger social problems that put parents in these positions.​ But children have to deal with the traumatic consequences of their removal from their families." He says that while making the film, he wanted to see how foster kids "responded to these dramatic circumstances and examine the child welfare system that was established to protect them."

The filmmakers were also motivated to offer a perspective of foster children and families that's different from the sensationalistic one they say the public often receives at a time of crisis, when there is a fatality. They believe these headlines lead the public to believe the system is completely broken, and they turn away in despair.

Foster provides not only a multi-dimensional, informative look at the system, but, at the heart of the film is a feeling of hope. Oppenheimer's goal is for the film to "impact greater awareness, engagement, and policy change." She wants "audiences seeing this film to view children in foster care as our children, not other people’s children, and to realize that how we treat children and preserve families impacts all of us and can lead to better outcomes for those who are among us in great numbers." 

Oppenheimer elaborates, "I hope the many sectors touching children and families will shed their biases, judgments, and stereotypes to help provide parents with the help they need, keep families together wherever safe to avoid the trauma of separation, support foster parents where removal is required, and give children the help and services they need. I wish for greater compassion for those who have been impacted by the foster care system and for viewers to consider how they might mentor; volunteer; foster; adopt; provide internships, shadowing, or jobs; donate; vote; or the many other things that can be done depending on one’s capacity to engage."

It seems Oppenheimer's goals are within sight, given the way audiences are already responding to the documentary.

Holly Gordon, Chief Impact Officer of Participant Media, tells Parents.com, "We have seen that Foster connects with audiences in a way that touches hearts and deepens the understanding of this very complex system. The film makes visible and personal the lives, hopes and dreams of the children and adults who are in some way touched by the foster care experience. Our goal from the beginning has been to change perceptions, helping viewers understand that 'those children' are 'our children,' and to inspire as many people as possible to get involved in the life of a foster youth. We know that caring, consistent love from a grownup can make all of the difference in the life of a child."

One of the documentary's subjects, Jessica Chandler, couldn't agree more. She says she hopes the film lets audiences know that they "have the power to change the trajectory of someone’s life, that the child welfare system is not a lost cause, and that we can recommit to both. By pushing for necessary legislation to change the way we do business as a whole, and by giving ourselves in whatever capacity we are able, we can disrupt the toxic cycles that bring these children and families to Child Protective Services in the first place."

You can now see Foster on HBO On-Demand. Participant Media has also launched a social impact campaign alongside the film to help ignite meaningful action. Check out their Watch Party Toolkit, which aims to help individuals organize a screening and get involved after watching the film, from becoming a CASA or foster parent to connecting with local organizations to joining a Parent Circle. Additional resources are available on FosterMore.org.

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