It brought me back. From the yellow brick walls in the bedrooms, to the invasive room checks, and to the emotionally explosive community meeting, I was suddenly back in the Outer Richmond of San Francisco working in a residential living program with formerly homeless youth. Granted the “kids” of Short Term 12 were younger and subject to “take downs” whenever they physically had an outburst or fled the facility, many of the same heartbreaking issues echoed in the halls I once watched over.
Between the twenty residents with whom I worked, there existed long histories of abuse, lattices of scars climbing up arms, and tears on birthdays because it was a day often more reminiscent of what had not gone right for them as children than what had. Even the words used by Short Term 12’s residential staff such as “de-escalate” and admonishments such as, “you have to be an asshole before you can be a friend”, were once an integral part of my daily work environment.
Although difficult at times to watch, I was not overly shocked by the film or repeatedly brought to tears. Many of the scenes were familiar territory, hyperbolized for a movie, displaying a fireworks of crises detonating all at once and in the same room.
There was truth, though. I often found in my work with disadvantaged youth, there were certain individuals who were always in crisis and on the brink of something. Often the youth would take turns adopting this role, allowing it to serve its purpose, garner help when needed, and they would heal. It was cyclical.
Many of the young people in the film displayed group-home archetypes. “Jayden” symbolized the angry, frightened, broken young girl hiding behind dark make up and expletives. I have definitely met her before, although, she never spit on me. “Marcus” was the young man, full of talent and lyrics, about to embrace a forced adulthood and completely terrified. He represents thousands of foster youth everyday. “Sammy” embodied the psychologically fragile little boy, overly medicated and bound to his bed by depression after losing his only loved possessions. Many of the other youth in the film merely offered a background, slightly out of focus, as bodies to help carry the overwhelming issues of the first-string characters. Not surprisingly so, the ones who demonstrated more stability in the group home were not tapped to play leads. Their characters would not have been as compelling.
Lastly, I have to the share words that were ringing throughout my head from nearly the beginning to the end of Short Term 12: poor boundaries! “Grace” who immediately emerges as a tough love (but not too tough) residential counselor who adores her “kids” and can empathize with their pain with more sincerity than most, breaks several cardinal rules of doing this delicate work. Although, it is often to the discretion of the counselor, and the facility in which one works, raw self-disclosure is often discouraged. As a “frontline staff”, emotionally bleeding onto the young people with whom one is meant to support can be very dangerous and often detrimental. Allowing broken children to become privy to one’s personal sorrows, especially when in the position of a caring and stable counselor, has never been an encouraged practice. Furthermore, when “Grace” goes to the home of “Jayden’s” father, prepared to finish him with a baseball bat, only to be interrupted by “Jayden” herself, I cringed at how poor this staff failed to hold herself together. Her character is balanced by her loving boyfriend and fellow residential counselor “Mason”, who uses humor and near stoicism to keep the kids in check. The other two staff operate much like the youth in the film not in crisis—their roles are unremarkable.
Bottom line: the film is beautifully executed, painfully sad, probably too realistic for some to watch (especially if it reminds them of their own experiences in a group home) and offers a gamut of important issues faced by foster children. My only true critique is that the film presents a lead staff who is emotionally volatile, selfishly consumed by her own past to effectively help others, and canonized for her various pitfalls which would have had any real group home staff fired.
Lauren Gonzalves is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She wrote this story as part of Fostering Media Connections’ Journalism for Social Change program.