During the first moments of HBO’s new film “Foster,” the camera pans across an office of Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and lingers on a cluster of infant car seats.
They’re ready to be grabbed by county social workers on their way out of the Emergency Response Command Post, the nerve center of the county’s child welfare system. That’s where DCFS fields calls from the child protection hotline and, when necessary, sends out social workers to investigate serious allegations of child abuse. In the cases where social workers find a child’s life in danger, the kids will be whisked away from their family and home, and into the care of the county and its foster care system, the largest such entity in the country.
Over the course of two hours, the HBO movie endeavors to show viewers more than the terrifying moments of foster care. Directors Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer aim to show a wider range of people and experiences than you might encounter if your only knowledge of child welfare is gleaned from newspaper headlines about child fatalities and system dysfunction.
To do this, they weave real-time footage with intense interviews. Among the duo’s subjects are a foster youth-turned-DCFS social worker; a teen trying to figure out her path early into adulthood as she ages out of foster care; two parents trying to regain custody of their infant daughter; a foster youth ensnared in the criminal justice system; and an irrepressibly positive foster mother who has been an anchor to dozens of kids over 20 years.
For the most part, many of these vignettes always come back to county courtrooms. It’s where the parents of a newborn baby girl struggle to reunify with her after the child tests positive for cocaine at birth, and where a foster youth who witnessed his own mother’s murder as a young child hopes for help instead punishment after his arrest.
In recent weeks, directors Harris and Oppenheimer have been on a barnstorming tour to show the movie to many advocates, policymakers and others in the foster care community, including members of the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. They recently sat down with The Chronicle of Social Change to share some thoughts about the five-year odyssey of making the movie and what they learned from observing dependency court cases for a year.
The film airs tonight on HBO.
What prompted the two of you to make this movie? Was it something personal or a news story that created the interest?
Deborah Oppenheimer: [Many years ago] my mother passed away and I went to do volunteer work at a local public school. In the course of that volunteer work, I met a 6-year-old boy in the class who I was taken with, very bright and positive. Quite a leader in the class.
When I finished my volunteer work and was getting ready to go back to my work and my job, as I was literally walking out of the door, I asked what this boy’s story was. I found out that he had been removed from his parents’ care and was living in an orphanage on Vine Street called Hollygrove Home for Children, which was where Marilyn Monroe spent some time. So I thought, wait, an orphanage, on Melrose and Vine in Hollywood?
I was still raw from the loss of my mother, but I resolved to stay in his life. It’s been 25 years; he just turned 31 a few weeks ago. I had a very emotional awareness of his challenges and his story, but I really didn’t know how the system worked. In my time with him, I never met his social worker. I never met his attorney. But that was my reason for wanting to make the film.
Mark Harris: Throughout my career, I’ve been drawn to subjects and issues about how children face problems created by adults, not of their own making. I’ve made films about child labor, children dealing with poverty, dealing with war. This is another example of children dealing with a problem they didn’t create, even though they sometimes think they’re responsible for being taken away from their families. It’s clearly not their fault; it’s a problem of their parents and a larger social problem.
Do you think you did a job of portraying L.A. County’s child welfare system?
MH: It’s a huge system. It’s the largest county child welfare system in the country, and we picked five stories — each one showed a different facet of the foster care system. We tried to be faithful to those stories and the people in them. When we had the premiere last night here in L.A., when the people that we filmed saw the film, they thought that we accurately portrayed their story.
Does that mean we captured the complete complexity of the system? I think it’s going to take more than one movie to do that. What we have been encouraged by is that a lot of social workers who feel uncomfortable about the way they’ve been portrayed in the media and who don’t like to talk about what they do to their family — or even their spouses — all of them have felt the film is an accurate portrayal of what they do. And that’s been gratifying.
Court plays a role in most of the five stories. How much time did you spend in court?
DO: We observed a lot. We spent an enormous amount of time, over a year, just observing, with no cameras. Even to sit in and observe in a courtroom, you had to have the judges, you had to have the children’s law center, county counsel and L.A. dependency lawyers [parental representation] agree to let you sit in. We did get that permission from an awful lot of groups.
We were fortunate that Michael Nash was still the presiding judge when we started and one of the signatures of his time as presiding judge was that he wanted a transparent court where he could invite people in. That was very much to our advantage. During our filming, he stepped down. Judge [Michael] Levanas came in as presiding judge after him and his ambition was to have Edelman court depicted as a desirable place for judges to serve. Being a children’s judge is not always the first choice of judges and he hoped that if the work of children’s judges was seen in this movie, maybe more would be called to work in children’s court.
What’s one thing that you think you learned about the child welfare system that you didn’t know before spending so much time in these courts?
DO: It was staggering to see the caseloads and to see how little time there is for each case. I think we figured it was about seven minutes each at one point. The turnover; how quickly things moved.
We heard one story in court about a kid in court being referred to as “minor.” They kept calling him minor, and when they left the court, he said “well, when do I go?” His attorneys said, “well you went.” “But they never called my name,” he said. “Well, you were the one called minor.”
MH: We were impressed with Commissioner Totten’s courtroom where they discussed the cases beforehand. You get the probation officer, the defense attorney, children’s attorney and the county attorney [to] all talk with the judge. There’s one scene with Commissioner Totten in the film where they talk Totten out of being so tough. And it’s collaboration. We were impressed by that. All the kids in foster care need services from different agencies, and that’s a great example of the cooperation that can happen.
Is seven minutes enough time to collaborate given the way courts are designed to work?
DO: Well, you do see Patricia Soung, his defense attorney from Children’s Defense Fund, say in the movie that she wished that she could have been involved in his case earlier.
MH: You see one constant visual refrain in the film: all of the number of cases, the files of the cases in stacks and piles everywhere. Clearly, the system does not have the capacity or bandwidth to give them the appropriate time they deserve.
What would change if people had better access to courts and other parts of the system that are pretty cloistered?
DO: Hopefully more people will understand Mary’s story, and the impact of extending care beyond 18 years old.
Also, at the very end of our time in court, there started to be more representation in court. But in California, children and parents have representation, but they don’t in a lot of states across the country. There are states where children don’t have attorneys or parents don’t have access to an attorney.
MH: The kids are stigmatized too. Mary said she wants to be seen as more than a kid with a social worker. That’s certainly one of our goals in the film. A lot of the families enter the system, mostly because of neglect and abuse. We need to do more to alleviate poverty, racism and the largest social issues so that we don’t end up taking so many kids away from their families which is traumatic in itself.
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