Jay Paul Deratany has been interested in acting and filmmaking for as long as he can remember, but in college he turned his sights to a more lucrative career as an attorney. For almost 30 years, the Chicago-based lawyer has specialized in malpractice and personal injury cases, eventually founding his own practice The Deratany Firm.
In the early 2000s, Deratany took on a case against a for-profit foster agency that did not disclose to a foster parent the history of a boy she took into her home and who sexually assaulted the woman’s three young children. Deratany secured a confidential eight-figure settlement for the woman in the case, which launched his litigation and advocacy work in foster care.
The case kickstarted his legal career. It also planted the seed for “Foster Boy,” a screenplay that pulls together the many harrowing foster care cases Deratany has come across in his legal work since.
He’s gone on to represent several other child welfare related cases, including a case against Lutheran Social Services of Illinois in the wrongful death of 2-year-old Lavandis Hudson, who was killed by his biological mother after he was returned to her care. The $45 million jury verdict is the largest in U.S. history involving the death of a toddler known to the foster care system.
Despite his career as a successful lawyer and consistently appearing on the National Trial Lawyers Top 100 list since 2007, Deratany’s love of writing and acting continued to call to him. After reading an article about two 15-year-old Iranian boys who were hanged for being gay, Deratany wrote the play “Haram! Iran!,” which was nominated for an award from GLAAD award, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
After some encouragement, Deratany decided it was time to explore that interest a little further and at age 45, he enrolled in a master’s program in screenwriting at the University of California Riverside. Since graduating in 2013, he’s written several scripts.
One of his professors encouraged students “to write what you know, about what impassions you.” Deratany didn’t have to look much further than his 20-plus-years of fighting injustices for foster youth and the families who care for them.
In order to tell a profound story that would resonate with viewers, Deratany put together two characters for the film – a conservative lawyer with a very one-sided life perspective and a young man who had been bounced through several foster homes and who was failed at every turn.
That film has come to life in the new motion picture “Foster Boy.” When attorney Michael Trainer, (played by Matthew Modine) is forced to take Jamal Randolph’s case (Jamal is played by Shane Paul McGhie), the two have to forge an understanding.
“They have to start seeing each other for who they are,” Deratany said.
While the characters are fictional, Deratany based them loosely on his litigation work over the years, especially Jamal, who represents a composite of three or four of the youth Deratany has worked with.
“The for-profit foster care industry bothers me a lot,” Deratany said. “I’ve handled 20 of these cases so far and I’m seeing a pattern.”
That pattern leaves kids in foster care for too long with unprepared caregivers, overworked caseworkers and a system looking to make a profit, Deratany said.
“The whole set up of the system doesn’t lend itself to the best outcomes,” Deratany said. “We need to fundamentally change the foster care system.”
Through “Foster Boy,” Deratany is able to put some of the system’s shortcomings front and center. Among the most important issues Deratany focuses on are having lawyers represent all children in foster care, national social work standards, a living wage for social workers, the importance of smaller caseloads and getting the for-profit industry out of the foster care system.
The film includes big name actors like Modine and Louis Gossett Jr., playing Judge George Taylor. But the biggest boon is the film’s executive producer Shaquille O’Neal, former basketball superstar.
O’Neal recently penned an op-ed in The Tennessean about the film:
“I will not give up on foster kids, because here are some other things I learned growing up: personal responsibility, accountability and the importance of lending a hand to those less fortunate. Foster kids are not just someone else’s kids – they’re our kids. There is so much we can do to help them, but it all starts with shining a light on their circumstances.”
“He’s very passionate about children’s issues,” Deratany said. “He’s very social conscious.”
Having four-time NBA champion O’Neal join the production team is something that Deratany hopes will help spread the word about the film and raise greater awareness about foster care-related issues.
“It means bringing a powerful voice,” Deratany said. “He’s going to bring the issues to the forefront.”
Bringing attention to these issues and fighting for system’s change has been the focus for Deratany for almost 30 years, and something that he hopes this film will highlight.
“We need to bring about fundamental change so it’s a child-focused system,” Deratany said. “We need to bring them permanence and safety in the placement.”
Just getting started on the film festival circuit, “Foster Boy” is already drawing attention, earning the Carpe Diem Andretta Award at the Woodstock Film Festival, which is given to a film that best exemplifies living life to the fullest through character and story development in a full length narrative or documentary film. Deratany said he hopes the film is picked up by a distributor outlet soon.
In the meantime, he continues to litigate child welfare cases with cases pending in Ohio, Illinois and California.
“As long as kids keep getting abused in the system, I’m going to keep fighting for them,” Deratany said. “We need more foster families and more money to be pushed in the right direction.”