Through Horror and Hope: Short Term 12 Exposes the Group Home

In Short Term 12, the abused but irrepressible heroine Grace leads us into a typically hidden world: the foster care group home. In doing, she helps illustrate how steep the hill is that confronts youth in the child welfare system.

“Look into my eyes so you know what it’s like / to live a life not knowing what a normal life’s like,” rapped Marcus when a staff-member expressed interest in his writing. The film demands exactly this of us.

Despite the dramatic flair, the movie seems well-researched. Kids exposed to violence, abuse, and neglect often internalize fears and struggles. More than likely (thanks in part to an underfunded and sanitized child welfare system intended to “create a safe environment and that’s it,” in the words of Grace) they lack supportive adult role models.  The young actors in Short Term 12 demonstrate these internalizing tendencies, separation anxiety (especially from siblings) and – often – misdirected rage.

Characterized throughout by anger, disconnection, and wounded trust, the film is best encapsulated by the screaming, the sprinting, and the suffocating that surround the therapeutic moments of escape.

But, the film also compels a more hopeful view. From the moment Grace runs community meeting (and demonstrates flawless student-leadership pedagogy) we know many of the kids will respond. Every indication is that Grace, a survivor herself, has saved lives before and will save more in the future.

But she may also be super-human, and I ponder how many Graces – given how insufficiently we in this country reward and recognize those in her position – really exist. She seems like the best possible antidote to repairing the deep wounds held on the skin and behind the eyes of the kids in the film.

I’ve never been inside a group home, and my experiences most relate with the winner of the ‘most pathetic character’ award, Nate. Awkward and overwhelmed, Nate announces his patronizing, naïve ambitions on day one: “I’ve just always wanted to work with underprivileged kids.”

He’s instantly a buffoon, and I’m reminded of my own nineteen-year-old buffoonery at the Berkeley homeless clinic. At the clinic, I remember ‘contributing’ my unwavering, one-dimensional nods of ‘concern.’ In short, I lacked the empathy needed to actively listen to and learn from the stories and insights filling the walls of that clinic.

Nate and I both learned. We learned to withhold assumption. We learned to accept as well as give. In his role at the group home and in mine as a middle school teacher, we have both learned to discipline kids and also to hold them to high expectations.

In the wisdom and strength Grace culls from her own experiences in the system, she became a beacon of support and compassion for the kids in her care. Nate and I will never be Grace, but we feel a responsibility to contribute to our ideals of justice, and that’s appropriate. But what the field really needs is a team of a thousand Graces.

Hopefully, Short Term 12 will inspire a broader conversation on a bitter and tragic system. Efforts to “professionalize” the country’s child welfare workforce seem fine, but I hope that includes an emphasis on better supporting future workers who know firsthand the trauma of maltreatment and who can best help the kids who most need it.

As I watched Short Term 12, most of my tears were ambiguous, and my emotions were confused. The breakthrough moments and the setbacks were overlapped and related, but thanks to the learned resilience and strength built into the bones of the young survivors and Grace, hope clawed its way into this film and their lives.

Tim Morrison is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. He wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.

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