Why HBO’s ‘Foster’ Documentary is a Travesty for Youth in the System

Two young women featured in HBO’s “Foster,” a documentary about the foster care system in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of HBO

Last week, HBO released “Foster,” a documentary hailed to be the first insider look at Los Angeles County’s child welfare system, the largest in the nation with jurisdiction over more than 18,000 kids.

Filmmakers spent four years following judges, social workers, families, a foster mother and some of the youth caught up in this system. Many people have celebrated this “unprecedented access,” which included a direct look at children, their stories, their faces and even their real names in some cases. Ironically, L.A. County refuses to open court hearings for journalists (who will often change names to protect identities), while these court hearings were filmed and aired openly in this documentary.

While I think the film could have been fairer to birth families, I am particularly concerned about how and why the stories of young people in the foster care system were made into a feature film. It was invasive and unethical to film intimate details of youths’ lives for the world to see.

In regard to dignity for foster youth, this film is a travesty.

Sixteen-year-old Dasani’s journey through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems was highlighted in the documentary. Photo courtesy of HBO

The documentary shows how 16-year-old Dasani’s placements in group homes landed him in the juvenile justice system. Juvenile records can be sealed, but this film will never go away, making Dasani’s record, time in care, and pain all Google-able by future employers and colleagues.

Right in line with the reactive and shortsighted culture of foster care, children’s pain was put on display without regard for their healing. Would you allow your young children to be followed by filmmakers for two years? Don’t forget that foster youth are somebody’s children, too.

Was providing consent for children to be featured in this film a noble effort to change the narrative about foster care? Hardly.

L.A. County wanted to polish their image and they tried to do it at the expense of these children, their stories and their futures. We cannot fall in line and clap our hands every time somebody says the word “foster.”

The “Foster” documentary traded children for a story. This is not progress. This is the system continuing to control the narrative about foster care. This film was self-serving for the system and damaging for youth.

Katarina Kabick is completing an MSW at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an active member of the California Youth Connection’s Alameda County Chapter and its statewide policy team. She recently co-founded Y-LIFE (Young Leaders Igniting the Fight for Equity), which works to bring youth voice to providers, organizations and systems across the Bay Area.

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