The other night, I found myself alone, sporadically wracked by tears, but feeling an intense sense of purpose.
Three years earlier, I was handed a white DVD, imprinted with the words: “Short Term 12.” On it was a short film, which told the story of a group home, the kids that lived there and the underpaid, overworked staff who tried to stave off the nightmares that these children brought with them. I didn’t know whether to like it or not; the issues felt condensed.
But now, alone in my apartment, I found myself watching a wholly new “Short Term 12.” In the years since, the writer/director and producer had found a larger budget and produced a full-length feature.
Again, it centered on a group home, the kids that lived there and the underpaid, overworked staff. The difference was that the filmmakers now had adequate time. And while the themes – sexual abuse, love, trauma, hope, foster care – propel the film on a relentless pace, almost every moment was semantically-laden, imbued with both promise and tragedy.
It brought me back to day one, when I walked into a group home in South L.A., which became the basis for the first story I ever wrote about foster care. That story was about a group home, the kids that lived there and the underpaid, overworked staff trying to make sense of it all.
“The small room — two boys sitting on each bed — becomes quiet,” I wrote for the LA Weekly in August, 2007. “The sound on the television is muted. A frenetic clicking comes from the control paddles [of a video game]. And then, as the tension subsides, the boys talk about the one thing they all have in common: not having a mother.
“When Chris was 12, his mother, a drunk who drank with gangbangers ‘but never banged,’ was found in between two cars near a liquor store on Whittier Boulevard. She had been beaten to death.”
Beyond what I wrote, I remember the air in the place when the boys talked about their mothers. They were children, talking in somber tones. They had been bickering and cussing at each other just minutes before, but when they got to the subject of mom, all that stopped. They were brothers in pain, and in that moment, much more of men than I, at least a decade older, was.
The experience left me with two questions that have burned through everything I have done since. The first: How would I have ever made it if I didn’t have my mother? And the second: Knowing what I had been given, how could I walk away from the warm, still air in that South L.A. group home and do nothing? Well, I did choose to do something.
But, along the way, fighting for policy change or dealing with non-profit administration, you can forget the human emotions that brought you to this work.
So there I was, face to face with my memories as elicited by a beautiful, honest and true-to-life film. I have seen many depictions of what we call foster care. Whether in the newspaper, on the television or otherwise, I am often left disappointed. But in this case, with this film, “Short Term 12,” I knew I was watching the very best thing I have ever seen that deals with foster care.
I applaud Destin Cretton and Asher Goldstein – the writer/director and producer – who took that little white DVD and turned it into a film that will speak to the hearts of those who work in the field, were raised in foster care or who are as blind to what these children face as I was back in 2007.
And I thank them. Because, the story of foster care is more than political victories and incremental or even sweeping changes to the system. It is more than salacious newspaper headlines and political proclamations. The story is the children and the every-day people who step up and fight for them.
This film brought me back to that: the heart of the work, the children, the reason why I chose to do something in the first place. So after a night of tears, I am recharged, ready to get back to it.
I hope you too will watch this film, and ask yourself what you are moved to do.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.